Doing our best creative work is a fight.
It strikes me this morning that I’ve been saying this often over the past few years. (Maybe it’s becoming my motto or tagline or something.)
I love how Steven Pressfield puts it. In his books — especially The War of Art — he talks at length about that great enemy called resistance.
Pressfield writes that “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity,” or, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” is sure to elicit resistance.
When you set your sights on doing something of value and something meaningful, rest assured you will face resistance.
If you’ve ever spent so much as a one minute trying to create something of value and substance, then you know first hand that it is a fight to be and stay creative.
But what I love about the fight is that it’s self evident.
If you find yourself facing fear, doubt, shame, difficulty, perplexity, and/or overwhelm when you sit down to do the work then rejoice! All that resistance means you’re trying to do something worthwhile. The resistance is proof that you’re on the right track. Don’t quit.
Seriously. Don’t quit.
But quitting is not what I’m here to talk about. The advice to not quit is common. It’s good advice. You and I need to hear it every day. When I set my watch for 30 minutes, put in my earbuds, shut off the outside world, and make myself write for half an hour I have to remind myself that I’m not allowed to quit.
As a creative person you need boundaries.
You need space to think. You need time to focus on the work at hand while your mind stares up to the stars, discovering new worlds and ideas.
You need time to yourself.
You need at least some level of autonomy to call the shots and draw a line in the sand.
But I have found that in my process of setting up boundaries that help me do my best creative work, a seed of selfishness and narcissism can plant itself.
Don’t let that happen. In the fight to do our best creative work, narcissism is not the destination — generosity is.
Why? Because creativity should, by definition, bring life. You’ve taken something that did not previously exist and now it does.
Which means your best shot at doing your best creative work is to do something that will bring life to others.
As you focus on doing your best creative work, don’t get so absorbed in your own thoughts and your own world that you cease to be generous, kind, outgoing, helpful, and selfless toward others.
At the recommendation of Jeff Sheldon, a few days ago I ordered Dale Partridge’s new book, People Over Profit. I’m half-way through, and the book is about so much more than running an honest and successful business.
Partridge’s book is about character, integrity, honesty, serving others, being transparent and generous, and investing in quality. People Over Profit is encouraging and thought provoking for anyone with a platform, an audience, an entrepreneurial spirit, and/or a role in leadership or management.
I’ve highlighted several passages and quotes so far, and a couple of them I want to write about today.
Here’s one of the first idea from the book that really struck me. Partridge writes:
All good companies must have some level of efficiency, which can be a tool to help achieve noble goals. But problems arise when efficiency becomes the goal — when it is no longer a means to an end but the end in itself.
The context here is that Partridge is talking about how most companies start out with honest values and goals, but as their business grows these companies seek ways to improve their efficiency and to keep growing.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to improve efficiency and to keep growing. In fact, I touched on this recently when I wrote about value, price, cost, and profit. In order increase profit without decreasing value you have to either: (a) add more value; or (b) lower costs without sacrificing quality.
Increasing efficiency without losing value or quality is not so easy. But what Partridge had to say about efficiency becoming the main goal stood out to me on a personal level as well.
Take the same quote from above but replace “all good companies” with “any individual” and the text still rings true:
Any individual must have some level of efficiency, which can be a tool to help achieve noble goals. But problems arise when efficiency becomes the goal — when it is no longer a means to an end but the end in itself.
This past November I recorded a whole podcast episode on the issue of focusing too much on focus. The idea is that distractions and resistance are universal things we all face when trying to get things done. It’s important to know what to focus on, to be good at working through distractions, and to reduce to the essentials when it comes to projects and our environment. But it’s also possible (if not easy) to obsess so much on focus that we’re not even getting the most important things done because we’re too concerned about being efficient.
As a husband, a father, and as someone who makes things I would much rather move slowly in the right direction than quickly in the wrong direction.
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The second quote that stood out to me is actually a quote Partridge pulled from Jim Collins’s book, How the Mighty Fall.
Launching headlong into activities that do not fit with your economic or resource engine is undisciplined. Addiction to scale is undisciplined. To neglect your core business while you leap after exciting new adventures is undisciplined. To use the organization primarily as a vehicle to increase your own personal success—more wealth, more fame, more power—at the expense of its long-term success is undisciplined. To compromise your values or lose sight of your core purpose in pursuit of growth and expansion is undisciplined.
I’ve read so many times about how success for a company can be more deadly than failure. Because with success comes opportunity and options. Which, in the words of Jim Collins, can open the door for a company to loose discipline and focus.
When companies lose focus from doing their primary mission — doing what they are best at — then they slowly begin to lose ground.
And the same is true for individuals. When you or I lose focus on doing what is most important then we begin to drift.
They say 70% of lottery winners spend their entire winnings within 5 years of hitting jackpot and are oftentimes worse for wear afterward. They “finally” got their big break but it didn’t improve the quality of their life.
Another study I recently heard about discovered that people’s baseline level of happiness does not grow proportionally to their income. They said that after someone’s annual salary reaches $65,000 their general mood and happiness sort-of plateau relative to their income. That even if that person were to double their annual income to $130,000 their “happiness level” would only increase by 7%. (The study went on to say that people were more happy when they spent their money on experiences and generosity rather than on things.)
As a company or as an individual, we all go through seasons of plenty and seasons of want. And I’m not just talking about finances. We go through seasons of plenty and seasons of want with our quality relationships, our quality of life, our health, our areas of influence, and more.
The challenge is to live with intention no matter the season.
We hear that term a lot: “intentional living.” Basically it just means we have the wherewithal to take a moment to pause and think. It means we respond to things instead of reacting to them.
So, when you’re in a season of plenty — as a business or as an individual — then invest your resources wisely and take time to pause and think so you can stay on focus.
I’m serious. Re-focusing is not a sign of weakness. Nor does it mean you’re in over your head. Every human needs regular “re-focusing” to stay on track.
Life happens, and our priorities and circumstances change. Give yourself permission to spend a week or a month taking stock of your values and priorities. Re-assess how you’re spending your time and energy. Doing so is a sign of maturity and motivation.
I built the Focus Course on 3×5 notecards.
While there were other tools — such as highlighters, binder clips, the world’s greatest pen, iA Writer, MailChimp, WordPress, a Baron Fig notebook, and a stack of paperback books taller than my 3-year-old — the notecards proved to be instrumental.
The idea to outline and build the Focus Course on notecards came from this awesome video about how Dustin Lance Black creates his movie screenplays:
So, earlier this year, I opened up a fresh pack of DotDash cards from my pals a Nock and wrote down all the ideas and topics for the course. Putting only one idea, topic, assignment, or lesson per notecard. Then I laid everything out to survey what was there.
Being able to see it all visually like this proved to be immensely helpful. I could quickly move stuff around and get an idea for the overall flow of the course.
I had 7 “rows” of cards: the Introduction, the five modules, and the conclusion. At first I had just shy of 60 days worth of cards in there. But I knew that I had to keep it to 40 (in the end I cheated by not counting the introduction or conclusion day, so technically it’s 42 days).
The challenge of paring the course from 60 days down to 40 wasn’t easy. Some of the cards I just tossed out altogether. Others I ended up combining. When friends would come over, I’d bring them down to my office and show them the outline and ask what they thought.
Finally, once I had the 40 days settled, I went through the order over and over in my head. I wanted Day 1 to lead into Day 2 to lead into Day 3, etc. I wanted all of Module 1 to lead into Module 2. And so on. I wanted there to be an ebb and flow to the lessons, so that the more fun days were interspersed with the more challenging introspective day, etc. And I wanted the course to start with something easy and fun note and to end with something fun but challenging.
In short, the information architecture of the course was just as vital as the contents. And the notecards were instrumental in helping get the architecture just right.
With the order of the course finally finished. I started outlining each lesson. On the front of each card was simply the focus for each day. On the back of the card I could put any notes, ideas, and references for that day, but it had to fit on the card. I didn’t want to have so much content it’d be impossible to get through each day’s lesson in a timely manner, so my outlines were literally constrained by the physical size of a 3×5 notecard.
Then, I put the whole stack of cards in order, placed them next to my desk, and started writing. Each day I took the topmost card and wrote the corresponding lesson for the course.
It took me 47 days to write the course. I began on March 19 and finished on May 5. During that month and a half, I wrote 40 daily lessons, plus the course’s introduction, conclusion, and the 5 module overviews: roughly 55,000 words in total; an average of 1,170 words every single day.1
It was this outlining and writing workflow that got me into the habit of having a pre-defined topic to write about. Writing the Focus Course in 47 days may sound like a huge task, but actually it was pretty easy.
For one, because I was so deeply immersed in the topics and content, everything was top of mind. Secondly, the rhythm and routine of writing every day got pretty easy after the first couple weeks.
Lastly, the constraints of the notecards themselves — a single topic with a pre-defined outline — took away much of the ambiguity involved in the writing process. All I had left to do was expound on the ideas I had already written down.
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This workflow could be used for so many other things: A book, a weekly email newsletter, a month-long series of blog posts, etc.
If you’re struggling to write daily, consider giving it a try. Pick a subject, write down a handful of singular ideas, give yourself a constraint about how in-depth (or not) you’ll go on each idea, and then give yourself a timeline for when you’ll write about and publish each of those.
- In a future post I’ll be sharing about the how and why I had a group of 90 pilot members to go through the course ahead of time and help me finalize the contents and flow. These amazing folks proved to be so valuable and helpful. ↵
Just because you know about something doesn’t mean you do anything about it. There are overweight dietitians, sleep-deprived sleep researchers, broke business coaches, and angry counselors.
Common knowledge is not the same as common action.
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The balance between our work and personal lives isn’t so much a perfect balancing act. It’s more of a zig and a zag. We spend a season of time focusing on a particular area of life, then we pull back and spend a season focusing on something else. We work hard at the office and then we go on vacation with the family.
It has been three weeks since the Focus Course launched. And now that this chapter of my life is closed, in the zig-zag of life I am taking some time off during the next month to be with and visit family as well as to celebrate 10 amazing years of marriage with my wife.
And during this down-time I’ll be thinking about what’s next.
* * *
This morning I was leafing through the notebook I used to jot down most of my research notes related to The Focus Course.
I came across one page, right in the middle of my notebook, that had several unordered bullet points on the importance of a focused life. These are some of the original ideas that later got expounded on as part of the course. I want to share them here with you.
- If you want to do everything, be everywhere, and control everything you’re more likely to do, be, and control nothing.
- Energy and motivation go further when they’re focused / channeled into a specific area.
- Clearly defined boundaries empower us to do better work. Hence the value in having daily routines. Also boundaries for how we will not spend our time, money, energy, etc. We have a finite amount of motivation, so keep in mind that if we commit to something new then it will need energy from another area of life.
- Goals and action plans allow all your energy to know where to take aim. Your motivation has a path to run on.
- Quality relationships are critical! Get around people with a sense of humor, who are high performers, who are fun and funny, and who are generous.
- We need humor and enjoyment in life.
- If you feel that you don’t have enough time, realize you have all the time you’re going to get. It’s impossible to be motivated when operating under other people’s unreasonable timezones and the tyranny of the urgent. Time is infinitely more valuable than money.
I have such a propensity to want to do everything, be everywhere, and control everything. But I know that the times I’ve done my best work are the times when I had one specific goal and one main project that I was focused on.
Reading my own notes this morning was a reminder to myself that just because I know a little bit about focus and diligence, doesn’t mean I’m immune to ever being un-focused. As I take some time to think and plan for what is next, I also need to remember to take my own advice: clearly defined boundaries empower; life needs humor and joy; I have all the time I’m going to get.
If you’re also slowing down this summer to think about what’s in store for the next season of life, instead of trying to figure out how you’re going to do it all, maybe try to do one thing really well.
Two years ago I launched my first real product.
I remember waking up the morning of the launch and feeling sick. I didn’t have the flu. I was scared. There was a big knot in the pit of my stomach. I felt like a fraud. I was afraid people would buy my book, read it, and feel ripped off.
The book I’m talking about is Delight is in the Details.
On the day I was to put it up for sell all I could think about was how I felt like a fraud and an imposter. I was scared that I was charging for something that should be free. In short, I wasn’t confident that the value of the book was greater than the price I was charging.
Who was I, I thought, to make something and then ask people to give me money for it? I didn’t trust my ability to create something of value.
It was such a bizarre feeling. I chose to ignore it and stick with my plan. I put Delight is in the Details up for sale when I said I would and I didn’t lower my price.
Delight is in the Details has since gone on to sell more than 2,000 copies. I have heard from so many people who have read the book, listened to the interviews, and have been inspired. I’ve even gone back and referenced my own writing from the book multiple times, to re-take my own advice and remind myself of those values and ideas.
* * *
Over the past two years, I’ve thought a lot about that day and those feelings: the fear, doubt, and even the shame that can accompany a product launch. Here you’ve got this thing that you’ve created for someone else, and you’re trying to assign a value to it. It’s not easy to do.
But since that initial product launch two years ago, I’ve since had two more times through a launch: last summer (2014) I published a big update to Delight is in the Details, and then a couple weeks ago I published The Focus Course.
Here’s an interesting data point: I charged more each product. In part because I learned how to add more and more value, but also because I learned to trust my ability to create something of value.
If you’ve got a product you’re trying to assign a value to, here’s something to consider:
Your product has three adjustable numbers: Cost, Price, and Value.
Cost is the time and money it takes to make the product.
Price is what you sell the product for. (Assuming it’s higher than your cost, then the difference is your profit.)
Value is what your product is worth in the eyes of the people who buy it.
These three numbers must be in balance.
Your price has to be more than your cost so you can make a profit. But you also want your price to be less than the product’s value so the people who buy from you are getting something worthwhile.
This is why pricing is an art, not a science. You need to make a sustainable and worthwhile profit from your product. But you also want to provide as much additional value as possible.
In my experience, there are two ways to adjust my cost/price/value ratios in order to have a price that is sustainable for me while also being fair to the people who buy my products.
First is to cut your costs in a way that doesn’t simultaneously sacrifice value or quality. Sometimes this is as easy as not wasting money on trivial minutia. Sometimes it requires thinking outside the box, working smarter, finding better help, scaling your production to get price breaks, or cutting out features that maybe can wait until a future update.
Second is to add value in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily or dramatically increase complexity or cost. I think one of the best ways to do this is by sweating the details. When you add empathy and delight to your product and the experience surrounding it, then the people who use it feel honored and excited.
The packaging that an Apple product comes in is an excellent example of both empathy (the boxes are easy to open and unpack) and delight (the boxes are high quality and well designed). It’s one of many ways Apple adds value to their products without dramatically increasing the cost to make the product.
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Here I’m going to share my own examples of how I did this, by sharing what I did to add value to The Focus Course. I’m using the Focus Course because it’s a real-life example that’s still very fresh in my mind.
I’ll first share about the real costs associated with the course, what I did to make the course as valuable as possible, and then where and why I landed on for the price.
For me, The Focus Course has two costs associated with it: the initial cost of building it and ongoing cost of running it.
I spent at least 1,500 hours (and probably more) of my own time to research, write, and architect the course. I also invested $9,600 to pay for the design, development, videos, editing, research material, and a few other miscellaneous odds and ends.
The second cost is the ongoing expense of keeping the course going. I pay for hosting the website (Flywheel), the webfonts (Hoefler & Co.), the SSL cert and domain registration, the video and media files (Vimeo Pro; Amazon S3), the forum (Discourse & Digital Ocean), the email servers (Mandrill and MailChimp), and the membership service and payment gateway (Memberful).
All in all, the services which power the Focus Course cost $211 / month to run. And the more people who sign up for the course, the more these monthly expense go up. This is certainly not a massive expense right now, but neither is it insignificant.
Additionally, I have to be able to pay a designer / developer for any updates, changes, or improvements to the website.
All this may sound like a lot when it’s listed out, but actually I think it’s quite reasonable. The moving parts all fit together quite nicely to make an overall awesome product that I’m proud of and that I believe is sustainable to maintain.
The big question I kept asking myself over and over was this: How can I make The Focus Course as valuable as possible?
In fact, it was this question that led me to build the course in the first place. As you may know, The Power of a Focused Life was originally going to be a book. But once I finished the initial draft of the book, and I began to read other books for research, I discovered that so many of important actionable items within these books were mostly buried underneath all the ideas and theory. I realized that my own book was suffering from the same fate, and so by asking myself how I could make the product more valuable I realized that it needed to be something other than a book.
Then, as the course began to take shape and I decided that I wanted to charge $250, I knew that I needed to build something that looked and worked like a $500 product and had the foundational content of a $1,000 product.
Basically, when people sign up, I want them to instantly feel as if they’ve already gotten more than they paid for. I want them to feel excited and refreshed. And then, by the time they finished the course, I want them to feel an even greater satisfaction — that they got what they were looking for and more.
It is critical to me that the value of the Focus Course be far greater than its price.
The foundation of the course’s value is, obviously, the content itself. There are 40 days of assignments and lessons, and if those 40 days don’t flow well and offer something of substance, then the rest doesn’t matter. And, fittingly, this is where I spent the bulk of my time and energy. Then, once I had the course outlined and written, I worked with nearly 100 “beta” testers to go through it and get their feedback on the contents alone.
The early pilot version of the course was ugly. And when I say “ugly” what I mean is “ugly.” I sent out ugly looking emails every day and I had a generic WordPress theme. It was just the raw content of the course with nothing to hide behind.
But once I knew that the content itself was right, then I got to work sweating the details.
And so, in addition to the content, there were a few other things I set up to add additional value to the course.
Design: I wanted everything about the course to be beautiful, readable, unique, professional, and responsive. Not only does a well-designed product feel more professional and high-quality, but I also wanted to use design as a competitive edge. There are other similar types of products out there and I wanted the Focus Course to be the best-looking.
Community: Having a thriving community forum that’s filled with other people going through the course is a massive value. It provides accountability, encouragement, help, and just a great sense of camaraderie.
All the little details: everywhere I could I tried to add fun extras. This includes a friendly welcome video when you first sign up, a welcome page and email that tells you everything on the website, personal follow up emails to check in on, an easy sign-up process with single sign on for the course and the forums, as well as some really fun easter eggs you naturally discover once you start the course.
One of the hardest aspects to building the Focus Course was coming up with a price. I went back and forth with all sorts of different numbers.
I wanted to charge an amount that was fair to those who bought the course — making sure the value given exceeds the price they paid. But I also needed to charge enough to make back the time and money initially invested, as well as being able to cover the ongoing costs of hosting the course.
Moreover, by charging a fair price, I can do more than just maintain the course, I can keep working on it and adding more value. I already have a clear roadmap for the next update.
I’ll also add that by charging a fair price relative to the content and commitment required, it means the people who buy The Focus Course have something invested in it. If I were to charge $5 then people would value the course as something about on par with a latte.
However, by charging $250, people see the course for what it actually is: something incredibly valuable that requires sacrifice. Which means those who do sign up are far more likely to actually to commit the time an energy needed to work their way through the 40 days.
You can’t buy word of mouth
When the value of what you’re selling is more than the price you’re charging for it, people who buy your product feel honored. (Conversely, if the value is at or below the price, people feel ripped off or cheated.)
When you sweat the details and add empathy, joy, and delight into your product then it makes people feel happy and excited.
And who doesn’t want happy, honored people as customers?
Wow. What a wild and awesome past few weeks. The Focus Course has launched (as you well know, haha), and now things return to their regular schedule. (Well, technically, they’ll return this coming Monday. I’ve got a birthday and a holiday weekend, so I’m taking some time off after today.)
Over the coming months I will be sharing a lot of the behind-the-scenes stories, information, and motivation about building and launching the Focus Course. If you have any questions for me that you’d love to see answered, please just email me. I’ve been doing this self-employed, work-from-home-as-a-full-time-writer racket for more than four years and I want to do what I can to encourage you that, yes, you can do your best creative work every day.
But today, I want to share something different. Simply a video of a man ironing a shirt.
Now, this is no ordinary video. This is one of my favorite YouTube videos of all time.
I can’t say exactly what it is about this ironing video that I love so much, but it’s just awesome.
Maybe it’s the meticulousness and skill with which the man irons that shirt. Maybe it’s the neat-freak in me loving to see that wrinkly shirt get ironed out. Or maybe it’s because this gives me hope that I don’t always have to be horrible at ironing.
Who knew that ironing could be a craft?
It makes me wonder how many shirts this man has ironed. Would he even tolerate the cheap Black & Decker iron and squeaky ironing table that are hiding in my closet feeling very insecure and inadequate at the moment?
The Focus Course is normally $250. But during the launch week, it’s just $199.
It’s 40 days and 5 modules. 18 videos. 75,000 words. Has downloadable PDF workbooks and HD videos. There’s a members-only discussion forum. You get lifetime access plus a money-back guarantee. And there are some awesome launch-week giveaways.
The Focus Course is for anyone who wants to increase productivity, personal integrity, morale, and overall quality of life. What sets the course apart is that it guides you in the implementation of these principles so that these topics go beyond mere head knowledge and into experiential knowledge.
If you’re ready to bring your life into focus, sign up here. You’ll get instant access to everything in the course right away.
Tomorrow at 10:00am EST, The Focus Course will be available.
This post is to tell you exactly what you’ll be getting when you sign up for The Focus Course. And, I hope to convey just how much value there is in the materials.
Over the past 11 months I have spent thousands of hours writing, researching, and architecting the content of this course. I’ve poured myself into building something that is professional, delightful, informative, fun, unique, and, most of all, very impactful. I am confident that the contents and value of the course are well worth the investment, and I hope this detailed look at everything in the course can help to demonstrate that.
If and when you sign up for the course, you can either start right away or wait to begin until a time that’s best for you. Since you’ll get lifetime access to the website there is no rush to start immediately.
The course will cost $249. At launch, however, it will be just $199.
That said, here are all the details…
The Course Itself
This is it. A 40-day course, broken down into 5 modules.
Each module centers around a specific theme. And each day you’ll be given a fun and simple task to complete along with a teaching lesson about the value, relevancy, and practicality of that day’s task.
I’ve said this before and it’s worth repeating: The Focus Course has been meticulously and intentionally designed to lead you along the easiest and most impactful path. It starts out easy and fun and culminates in profound change and understanding.
You are free to take the course at any pace that works for you. The website keeps track of which days you have completed, and you can easily see your progress.
And since you have lifetime access to the course, there is no rush to complete it (or even start it) until you’re ready.
Here’s a very brief overview of each module:
Module One: Foundations Days 1-7 focus on personal integrity, creative imagination, progress, reducing distractions, building social support, generosity, and simplifying.
Module Two: Honesty Days 8-17 focus on who you are and what’s important to you; roles, values, vision, legacy, short- and long-term goals, and how to realistically move toward them.
Module Three: Clarity Days 18-28 focus on how you’re currently spending your time and energy, what your potential is, and how to apply change and begin making progress.
Module Four: Action (and Resistance) Days 29-34 focus on the most common areas of resistance and how to overcome them.
Module Five: Meaning Days 35-40 focus on joy, fear, meaningful work, finding flow, margin for thought, and community.
Day 41: Conclusion A wrap-up day will help you take your new ideas, understanding, and life changes and maintain them for the long-run. I also have some advice on how to stay motivated and keep making forward progress after the course is over, and doing work that matters.
19 Videos + Bonus Articles
There are 8 video teachings that accompany the introduction of the course, the start of each module, and the conclusion.
Additionally, there are 11 bonus videos and articles where I answer the most common questions and struggles related to focus, time management, work/life balance, doing meaningful work, and more.
Some of the bonus videos and articles are:
- How to Pick The Right Task When There are So Many Great Ideas
- How to Stop Managing Your Tasks and Start Doing Them
- Dealing With Distractions
- Building Deep Personal Integrity
- How to Rest and Recharge
- Productivity and Parenting
- Dealing with Distractions
- How to distinguish between urgent and important
- And more…
You can watch the videos right on the website, and all 19 are available to download in HD.
If you’d like to save a PDF version of the course to your computer or tablet, or print it out in order to go through the Focus Course in hard copy, this is for you. 273 pages, full-color, and professionally designed.
Members-Only Discussion Forum
There is a members-only forum where you can ask questions and share any feedback, ideas, breakthroughs, stories, etc.
The American Society of Training and Development states that those who simply decide to do something have a 25% chance of accomplishing it, whereas those who decide when and where they will do something and who also have someone to report back to have a 95% chance of accomplishing their goal.
In short, the membership forums are for more than just asking questions and sharing ideas, victories, and struggles. They are also there for the sake of accountability to help you as you work your way through the Course.
On a nerdy note, the forum software we use is called Discourse. I realize that most people don’t know or care much about forum software, but I do and trust me when I tell you that Discourse is the best option out there. Period. I was ecstatic when I found a way to tie the forum software into the course and install it on an affordable server.
Anyone who signs up for the Focus Course during the first week will be eligible to win one of 44 prizes.
- 35 copies each of Day One for Mac + iOS
- Four Baron Fig Confidant notebooks
- Five of the 3-packs of the Baron Fig Apprentice, pocket notebooks
- Never Settle Gold Print from Ugmonk
- Slow and Steady gold print from Ugmonk
A huge thanks to the Baron Fig, Day One, and Ugmonk for donating these awesome goods to help with the launch of the Focus Course.
And most of all, a huge thanks to you, dear reader. There has been a lot of lead to the launch of the course tomorrow. If you have any questions at all about the course, please don’t hesitate to email me.
My life has been mile-marked by my first son’s birth day.
There is life before I was a dad and there is life after his birth. And this. Now. This is the real and the good life.
My wife and I have two boys: our oldest, Noah, is nearly 3 and a half; our youngest, Giovanni, is nearly 2. They are sweet, noisy, wild, fun, frustrating, and delightful. I can’t imagine life without them.
Fatherhood is, by far and away, the most wonderful role in the world.
To all the other dads out there — now or yet to be — happy Father’s Day. May our sons and daughters grow up with clear minds and full hearts.
Joanna Eitel is another one of the 90 pilot members who took The Focus Course this past spring. Joanna and her husband Tyler actually live here in Kansas City, Missouri. They have a 3-year old son and 1-year old daughter.
Joanna worked almost ten years as an event coordinator, literally helping coordinate events of 20,000+ people. She now works part-time as the office manager for an adoption agency, along with being a wife and mom.
After the pilot course, I asked Joanna some questions about her specific challenges related to focus, what her thoughts are about doing work that matters, and how the course impacted her.
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Shawn: What is your biggest challenge related to focus?
Joanna: For me, I have many roles: wife, mother, administrator, event coordinator, friend, and daughter just to name a few. And while I love every one of these roles, they don’t always stick to their own clean and organized schedule.
I could be in the middle of a conference call and one of my kiddos has a fall. Or while sitting in a staff meeting I may be distracted trying to remember what I need from the grocery store. Or perhaps I’m in the middle of cooking dinner and get a text from my boss requesting my attention on an issue. Even if he doesn’t need my answer right away, it now has my focus.
Through your course, I learned that many times these situations are related to the pressure to deal with what you call the tyranny of the urgent and not having a solution on how to filter such “pop-ups” as they arise.
What does the idea of work / life balance mean to you?
That these roles can coexist, however I need balance and a good action plan to juggle it well. When at work I want to be energized to do my best and give my all. However when I come home, I need to know how to unplug and be intentional with my family and personal life. Not only does this directly connect to my habits and disciplines at home but also what habits and systems I have in place at work!
What was something you learned during the course?
I learned several things, actually:
During one of the modules I realized part of my day at home was lost simply thinking of what needed to be done or deciding what to focus on next. If I tried checking the task list on my phone I found myself getting distracted by various social media notifications or emails. Now, I have a small white board on my refrigerator. Along with my project management apps or calendars that I love, I write my top priorities for that day on the white board. What project I’m focusing on, what calls need to be made, even if there’s laundry downstairs that I can’t forget about. The same goes for if I think of an email that I need to send or an idea to fully process later, I’ll note it on the board instead of worrying that I might forget. It’s simple and serves as a constant reminder to stay focused in the midst of the inevitable curve balls throughout the day.
All throughout the Focus Course, Shawn, you did an incredible job not only sharing steps and systems on how to be productive and focused but also you walked me through, step by step how to create my own mission statement and life goals. And not just within my vocation (which I think is where most of us focus on) but physically, financially, spiritually and relationally as well! Now when an opportunity arises, I am able to make a decision based on those core values and what I am called to “focus on” in this season. I can remember to stay true to who I am called to be and not distracted by what Pinterest defines as perfect or successful.
Also, the concept of organizing one’s time and productivity is not new to me. When I first read Getting Things Done by David Allen I was hooked. Because of my love for all things administrative and organization, I enjoy reading ideas and methods used by some great men and women — it just makes sense! However after becoming a mom and having even more to juggle, I had a harder time making sense of it all and finding where to even start. Along with research and insight, Shawn was even able to relate how he and his wife are able to apply these practices in their own home life. As a working mom, I finally felt like I had someone to relate to!
The way the course was laid out made it easy follow, and it provided practical avenues to integrate the principles into my daily routine immediately.
Did the daily tasks that accompany the course help to make the teaching sink in?
Yes! Having daily “homework” — or tasks — challenged me to put each philosophy introduced into practice, one step at a time.
I will never forget reading the assignment on Day One: laying out my clothes for the next day. For me it turned out to be a day that I was only planning on playing with the kids and tackling a long list of chores. Still, I laid out my favorite pink t-shirt and jeans. It actually made quite a difference! The simple act of getting dressed sooner in the day without a doubt jump started productivity level. Had I waited to make this simple of a decision until that day, I probably would have been caught up in the swirl of the day and the “tyranny of the urgent” and would not have felt clear, level headed and prepared for the day ahead.
What was your favorite aspect of the course?
My favorite part of this course was taking it along with my husband!
While we weren’t always on the same day, we enjoyed being able to challenge each other and follow up with what each of us was learning. It also made it easier to integrate these practices into our daily routine. One outcome from this course is we have started a weekly “team meeting” / in-home date night! We get the kids to bed, grab some dessert and connect about crucial decisions we need to make for our family. We review our budget, calendar, bring up any new opportunities to discuss, even take time to dream and vision cast when time allows. While some weeks may be more of a quick “touch base” and others take detailed planning, we now have routine we can rely on. Not only has this strengthened our focus as a family but it has strengthened our marriage. Taking the time to discuss your life vision as well as mission as a family is priceless. I highly recommend taking the Focus Course with your spouse!
Would you recommend this course to othrs?
Yes. Whether you’re a high level executive who is managing hundreds of employees, an entrepreneur with too many ideas and too little time, or a stay at home mom who can’t remember your own hopes and dreams but can name every single character on Sesame Street… I highly recommend the Focus Course. You will not only gain tremendous insight and tools to navigate this journey but will gain a new friend in Shawn Blanc to have in your corner, cheering you on.
Today’s interview is part of my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on Tuesday, June 23.
Every single person who went through the pilot course and provided feedback said that The Focus Course had a positive impact on them, and that they learned about the things they were wanting to learn about and they saw change in the areas they were hoping.
In the meantime, if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you’ll be the first to know when The Focus Course becomes available next week. Also, I’ll send you my free ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, that has been downloaded by nearly 7,000 people.
Tyler Soenen was one of 90 pilot members who took an early version of The Focus Course this past spring.
It was an honor to have Tyler as part of that early group because he is pretty much my ideal target market for the course: Tyler is a project manager at a large company and also has a strong bend toward creativity. While he has a lot of autonomy at his job, there are still the challenges that come with corporate bureaucracy and working with people who don’t all necessarily care about doing work that matters and living with integrity.
Moreover, Tyler has long been a “productivity student” so to speak. Before even taking the course, he had already read many productivity and goal-setting books and tried out other systems and methodologies, including Getting Things Done by David Allen, Zen to Done by Leo Babauta, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, What’s Best Next by Matt Perman, and The One Thing by Gary Keller. (All awesome books, btw.)
Throughout the pilot course, Tyler provided invaluable feedback (as did many of the other pilot members). And so, afterward, I asked Tyler some questions about his specific challenges related to focus, what his thoughts are about doing work that matters, and how the course impacted him.
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Shawn: What is your biggest challenge related to focus?
Tyler: My biggest challenge related to focus has been maintaining clarity on what’s most important in my life, and also being fiercely committed to that. In a day where information, priority, and urgency come at me from multiple directions in a short span of time, it’s always a fight to keep clarity in the midst of all of the competing elements of life.
What does the idea of work / life balance mean to you?
I like to think of these two topics as interwoven and integrated.
Work should be what your life is about, but there are different expressions of it. Work is taking care of your house, relationally investing into your family members, your church community, at your actual place of vocation by doing the best that you can to serve the very next person that you hand the product of your work to (whether that be a phone call, a spreadsheet, a presentation, a solved problem).
The ratio of work/life balance look different for each person according to their values and season of life. My aim (although I am very aware of my weakness to execute the vision) is to maximize my capability to serve others in my life and to use my opportunities for rest as a time to recharge my life so I can better achieve my aim of serving others.
You told me that you’ve already read quite a few books about productivity and have tried different systems and methodologies before. How was the Focus Course different than what you’ve learned in the past?
The books I’ve read tell you about the theory of how to use a hammer to hit a nail. For example, if you’ve ever read read Getting Things Done, it’s easy to think “Ahhhhh! Oh my gosh, there’s so much to do! I have to clarify all of my 50,000 ft objectives, set up my tickler system, clarify my 10,000 ft goals — it’s so much.” And that thought makes it overwhelming to actually put all of it to practice — you’ve learned the theory, but you’re not sure how to do anything about it.
Did the daily tasks that accompany the course help to make the teaching sink in?
Absolutely. What I liked about it is that it forced me to put words on paper, and perform the actions as I was learning the theory (reiterating what I was saying before). This also helped pace performing the actions.
As I mentioned before, when I’ve studied other books, the can be overwhelming to actually put in to practice. I learned the theory, but it’s not always clear how to do anything about it.
Your course, however, did the work for me in this area by taking that variable out of play. I just focused on doing what you told me to do and I learned from it. (Which, by the way, that’s why we usually pay for courses. And this course does that.)
What this left me with was 40 days of learning about the philosophy related to focus, doing work that matters, and having a healthy work / life balance. And at the same time I was learning from the experiences that came from completing the daily assignments. The course forces you to beat the resistance (as Pressfield says) and do the work. The result is that you learn so much more because you’ve actually done the work and tasted the fruit that so many of the books talk about.
This was huge for me, because in all of the reading I’ve done, the The Focus Course had something original that was very beneficial to my own life: the integration and union of having daily lifestyle practices that tie in to our ‘short- and long-term goals. You defined this paradigm in such a way that makes it possible to feel like I was achieving success daily by completing activities that are aligned with my own values, but at the same time using these activities to complete a short-term / long-term quantitative goal.
What was the most challenging aspect of the course for you?
I have to say, the most challenging aspect was sticking with it.
Being an American in our drive-thru-mentality society, I wanted to see awesome results just 5 days in. Sticking with 40 days of actions is difficult.
But when is the last time you’ve done something you’re really proud of in just a few days? In my experience it’s the difficult yet mundane tasks (and you talk about this, Shawn) that produce tons of fruit in the long haul. You just have to be willing to have the grit to follow through. I though you did such a great job at breaking things down and making them as simple as possible.
What was your favorite aspect of the course?
The integration and marriage of the ‘Daily Lifestyle Practices’ and ‘Short Term and Long Term Goals.’ As I said, in all of the reading that I’ve done, I think this is original and very beneficial to my own life.
In my experience reading a lot of productivity books out there, they either focus on the “now” and express that “there are no goals,” or they focus on goals alone and the achievement of these goals.
I’ve found if you focus on the “now” alone, you lose heart because of a lack of vision for where you’re going in life. And on the other side of that, if you are constantly completing and re-signing-up for goals, you never feel like you have success day to day.
You took both of these ideas and forged them into a singular convergent idea that can be deployed on a daily basis and that brings vision for the future, Yet it’s also something that is practical and simple enough to complete in 24 hours that aligns with your core values.
This was so helpful to me and was by far my favorite thing about the course.
Who do you think this course is for?
This course really could be for anyone. Every person is doing creative work somehow. If you have a choice on how you’re going to go about your day, your relationships, your vocation, etc. then this course is applicable to you. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, a horse rancher in Wyoming, or a broker in New York, I believe this course will not disappoint because it’s aligned with fundamental truths that we all benefit from.
Today’s interview is a part of my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on June 23.
Every single person who went through the pilot and provided feedback said that The Focus Course had a positive impact on them, and that they learned about the things they were wanting to learn about and they saw change in the areas they were hoping.
Over the weekend I’ll be sharing some more stories and testimonies of those who’ve already taken the course and how it impacted their life.
In the meantime, if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you’ll be the first to know when The Focus Course becomes available next week. Also, I’ll send you my free ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, that has been downloaded by nearly 7,000 people.
Every now and then an idea just hits you like a ton of bricks.
Have you ever experienced that?
You’re reading something, or listening to something, or driving to work and thinking about nothing in particular, but then a couple of dots connect in your head and kapow!
As I’m writing this, I’ve got one particular idea in mind that I want to share. Something that connected for me several years ago and has had a profound effect on me ever since.
It’s the idea of living like nobody else.
I first heard this phrase 10 years ago when my wife and I were newlyweds.
We were young and living on a humble missionary salary. I brought several thousand dollars of consumer debt to the marriage because when I was single I’d owned a truck that I didn’t know how to stop buying things for.
During our first six months of marriage, we focused very intently on getting our finances in order. We read Dave Ramsey’s book, and that helped us tremendously with getting a budget and building the courage to tackle our debt.
Something Dave Ramsey says repeatedly in his book is that if you will live like nobody else, later you can live like nobody else.
His point is that it’s time to stop living like a child. Assess your own life and be mature and intentional about how you spend your finances.
He writes about how so many lower- and middle-class Americans try to live as if they were millionaires: driving new and expensive cars, living in large homes, eating at fancy restaurants, etc.
However, most real millionaires actually live like middle-class (this is what the book The Millionaire Next Door is all about). The average millionaire’s annual household much lower than you may think (around $150K). However, since they live far beneath their means, they pay with cash, and they invest early and often, they’ve accumulated enough wealth to be worth $1,000,000 or more.
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This metric of living differently than most people goes far beyond just how you spend your money. It’s also an excellent metric for how to spend your time, energy, and attention.
I love how my friend Aaron Mahnke said it just yesterday in a tweet:
Do as much as you can with as little as you can for as long as you can.— Aaron Mahnke (@amahnke) June 17, 2015
Lifestyle creep and workflow creep put a ceiling on our potential. They rob us of our much-needed resources of time, money, and energy.
Coming back, this is the idea I wanted to share with you today. The idea of living like nobody else. Of being careful of lifestyle and workflow creep (especially when it’s rooted in dissatisfaction).
Did you know…?
- The average American spends 5 hours or more watching television and 2 hours on social media every day.
- The average retiree at age 65 has only enough in savings to pay for less than 2 years worth of living expenses.
- One of the most common regrets of the dying is that they worked too hard and neglected their relationships, values, and even their own happiness.
- And who knows how many men and women have a dream to start a business, write a novel, paint a painting, or build something meaningful, but never try.
Unless our hope is in the lottery, it’s a logical impossibility that we can waste our money and end up wealthy. The same is true for our time and attention.
As I’ve written about before, unfortunately, most of us aren’t surrounded by focused and successful individuals who can set an example for us and remind us to keep on keeping on. We have few examples of intentional and considered living. However, we probably have plenty of examples of how to watch TV, check Facebook, and live above our means.
What then if you lived like nobody else?
- Don’t spend hours each day watching television or scrolling through social networks.
- Don’t let your work life dominate over family time, personal values, or happiness.
- Don’t ignore the importance of investing over the long-run and planning for the future.
- Live as far below your means as is reasonable, and don’t derive your happiness or self-worth by the fanciness of the things you own.
- Don’t let laziness or busywork keep you from building something meaningful.
- Don’t assume you need a better tool in order to do better work.
It’s funny. Simply doing the opposite of what most people do can actually open up many opportunities for you to do meaningful work.
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It’s hard to change. We fear it. We get overwhelmed by all the areas we want to see change in. We get paralyzed by the options for how we could change. Or we’ve been there and done that, and since it didn’t work out that one time we’ve thrown in the towel for good.
Here’s the truth: You can change.
When Anna married me, I was an habitual spender. For years had been living paycheck to paycheck; I had thousands of dollars in consumer debt and no real grasp on how to consistently live within my means. But now we meet with and counsel others who are in debt and struggling to keep their finances under control, and we help them make changes to their spending habits.
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I realize that this all sounds so serious. Like we’re still little kids who don’t know how to behave. Hey, you! Watch less TV. Turn off Facebook. Do your homework.
Yes. It is serious. But that’s because it matters. It’s also awesome and fun. Getting ahold of your life is liberating to say the least.
Of course, the choice is yours to make.
Ask yourself if you would prefer to be up-to-date on all the latest TV shows and summer movies, or if you want to create something every day?
Do you want to stay in the loop with the lives of your Facebook friends, or do you want to help your kids build a fort or do their homework?
Do you want to squeeze in one more thing at the office, or do you want to go on a date with your spouse?
Now, I realize all these options aren’t continually at odds with one another — they’re not mutually exclusive. And it’s not that TV, Facebook, and late nights at the office are always “bad” all of the time.
Life is a messy, zig-and-zag balancing act. Rarely, if ever, is it a state of perfect harmony.
I’m being dramatic to make a point. Because I know that in my own life, and in the lives of my close friends and family, if we aren’t careful and intentional then over time the natural trajectory of life begins to move downward.
Focus, diligence, relationships, wealth, art — anything at all that is worth pursuing — is a moving target.
And we are guaranteed to face resistance when we take that path of doing our best creative work, living a healthy and awesome life, and building meaningful relationships.
In short, if you want to watch more TV, the universe won’t bother you. If you want to do work that matters, it’s going to be a fight.
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Today’s article is the fourth in my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on June 23.
For me, this one is perhaps one of the most personal yet. To be transparent, I am extremely passionate about keeping that healthy balance where I’m able to do my best creative work while also having thriving relationships with my close friends and family. It’s top-of-mind for me pretty much every single day.
If this article hits home for you as well, then I believe you will love the course.
As I wrote above, you can get breakthrough. You can do work that matters, build momentum in your personal integrity, establish habits that stick, bring a healthy balance between your work and personal life.
And the Focus Course can be the secret weapon to help you get moving in that direction. The course leads you along a path that starts out simple and fun and culminates in deep and lasting impact.
I hope you’ll consider taking a chance on yourself and signing up for the Focus Course this coming Tuesday.
Over the next few days I’ll be sharing some stories and testimonies of those who’ve already taken the course and how it impacted their life.
In the meantime, if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you’ll be the first to know when The Focus Course becomes available next week. Also, I’ll send you my free ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, that has been downloaded by nearly 7,000 people.
My life changed forever when my wife and I had our first child.
Becoming a dad was one of the most incredible and defining moments of my entire life. In fact, I’d say fatherhood is perhaps the most prominent milestone marker of my life. That my life is divided into two parts: before I was a dad and after.
But there’s more to the story.
Before our first son, Noah, was even born I decided to quit my job and try to work from home and write for a living.
It was Christmastime in 2010. My wife and I were having dinner after returning from Colorado. We had just gone through a deeply challenging loss in our family and out of that Anna and I began talking about having kids.
The jolt of the personal tragedy combined with the excitement of starting a family brought my whole life into slow motion. Things that were so important at the time suddenly seemed meaningless. Things that were once side passions now seemed immensely important. So many of my “priorities” got completely uprooted.
I knew that it was time to quit my job of 10 years and try my hand at something new.
Sometimes You Need a Jolt to Help You Make a Choice
It sounds so “bold” — to quit my job on the cusp of starting a family — but it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. And once I made the choice to quit my job and to start writing my website as my new full-time gig, everything else fell into place.
Do not underestimate the power of decisiveness and action.
Decisiveness brings motivation for action. Action brings clarity. And clarity helps us make future decisions.
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Long-time readers of this site will know just how much I love to geek out over things. I will spend hours and hours researching something to death. I love it. It’s fun; it’s play
For example: A few years ago I bought way too many keyboards and used them, tested them, recorded the sound they make when clicking, and studied how the different key switches actuate.
But sometimes my need to hyper-research and test something can be dangerous. In my office I still use an uncomfortable chair because I’ve never made time to do a deep dive research on “just the right” ergonomic chair for me.
When I want to make a change in my life, or when I want to invest in something that I know will be a critical part of my everyday life, I can obsess over it. Researching, thinking, and talking with people about it. It can literally take me months or years to make a decision (if ever).
My love for learning about and sweating the details is one of my greatest strengths. But it can also be a weakness.
Part of the reason I leave a note out for myself is because if I didn’t then I might never get any writing done. There are times when I need to be told what to do — times when I am paralyzed by decision. But then, once I’ve begun moving, then the action brings with it so much clarity.
Action brings clarity.
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Here’s a story.
A little over a year ago that I finally began running. I’d been putting it off for years because I wanted to do “the best” workout routine possible. What would have the maximum impact in the shortest time with the least effort? Ugh.
One day I realized that if I didn’t just start doing something — anything — then I may never start.
So I did the easiest thing I could do:
I bought a Couch to 5K running app that literally told me what to do. All I had to do was listen and follow the instructions.
I went to a store where they analyze your gait and help you get the right running shoes. They were only a bit more expensive than just going to a factory shoe store, but the extra cost was worth it for me because I didn’t have to think and research shoes. I let someone else help me and it took less than an hour.
And then, I came home and started running.
Starting simple and allowing someone else to tell me what to do removed a huge barrier of activation energy. And now, a year later, I’m still running regularly.
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Sometimes it takes a tragedy or other type of wake-up call to give us the push we need to get moving. Other times, we need to shut up and let someone else tell us what to do so we can just get started already.
In part, that’s exactly what The Focus Course is. It’s like “Couch to 5K” but for doing your best creative work and getting your life in shape.
Do you need a Couch to 5K app in order to start running? Not really.
Likewise, could you go on your own to get clarity on the principles and action items found within the Focus Course? Most likely. In fact, I have nothing to hide here: I’ve listed out all of the books, articles, podcasts, white papers, and other resources I read as part of my research to create The Focus Course.
What makes The Focus Course so valuable is how approachable it is.
The course starts out simple, easy, and fun. And over 40 days the course builds on itself so that by the end you’ve seen significant progress and change and have actually done something.
Peter Drucker says that “the greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.”
Knowledge alone is not enough to create lasting change. Which is why The Focus Course is about more than just head knowledge — it’s an introduction to experiential knowledge.
Without any hyperbole, I mean it when I say that The Focus Course can change your life.
Every single person who went through the pilot of the course and provided feedback said that The Focus Course had a positive impact on them, and that they learned about the things they were wanting to learn about and they saw change in the areas they were hoping.
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However, I’m not just here to try and convince you of the power of the Focus Course.
I’m also using it as an example to encourage you that not every decision or project should be researched to death.
If there is something you’re putting off because you think you need to research it more, consider if it’d be better to just start now with the easiest point of activation. And then, let your experiential knowledge bring clarity about what to do next.
Something I have learned — that is still a struggle for me, honestly — is that sometimes I just need to start. Oftentimes what I call “research” or “prudence” is actually just procrastination.
Procrastination left unchecked will gain momentum. The longer you put something off the easier it becomes to keep putting off.
I’m still learning to listen to my gut and to make a choice about something quickly. And I’m learning not to despise setting small goals, trusting the advice of others, starting simple, and making incremental progress.
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One of the primary goals of The Focus Course is to lead you along a path that starts as simple and fun and then culminates in something with deep and lasting impact. Check it out:
What you need is more bad ideas.
You know the drill. It’s late in the morning on Saturday and you’re outside mowing the lawn.
Or maybe you don’t mow the lawn. So, say it’s a Monday evening and you’re taking a walk through the neighborhood. Or it’s Tuesday morning and you’re taking a shower.
And then… bam! You have an idea. Seemingly out of nowhere.
Awesome. But why aren’t you having more ideas in more places?
I think we put far too much emphasis on the when, where, why, and how of good ideas. We should talk more about the when, where, why, and how of bad ideas.
We all need to have more bad ideas. More crappy first drafts. More embarrassing design mock ups. More failures. More awkward moments.
Something I mentioned in my article yesterday was about how this world we now live in, where everyone has the internet in their pocket, is totally new. Nobody has ever lived like this before.
One of the things that comes with having the internet in our pocket is that we can share moments and slices of our life with the world. But most of us are sharing the highlights. We share the best photos of the grandest places. Which is fine. But it also can cause a slight sense of disillusionment.
Gee, everyone I follow on Instagram lives in the mountains or on the beach and eats incredible food. I live in the suburbs and had a tunafish sandwich for lunch.
When we see other people’s beautiful Instagram lives and fine-tuned Pinterest taste, we think they live like that 24/7.
It can be challenging when we start to overlap the perfect and curated “world” we see through our smartphones and the messy and challenging world we live through our own eyes and skin.
That’s why you need to have more bad ideas.
Ideas are good for the soul. They’re good for your creative imagination. They’re brain food. They help you build motivation. But it’s not just good ideas that build motivation — bad ideas do this too.
When was the last time you had a real whopper of a terrible idea?
You’re probably embarrassed to even recall. As if having a bad idea is the same as farting during a fancy dinner.
It’s not the same; not the same at all. We need bad ideas. You need bad ideas.
Out of ten thousand ideas, only one of them might be truly great. If you sit around waiting for the great one, how are you going to get it? And then (well, this is a topic for another post, but what I’m trying to say is that) once you have a great idea, that’s only the very beginning — doing something about it is what matters most.
How to Strengthen Your Creative Imagination
So here you are. Standing at a place that is “Not Amazing” and you’re trying to get over there to “Amazing”. There is no shortcut except to go through the mud of “Not Yet Amazing.”
I want to have more bad ideas, more terrible first drafts, more embarrassing design mock ups, more failures, and more awkward moments.
While that may sound like the worst Christmas List ever, what it actually means is that I want to try harder and have less fear of failure. More bad ideas, more terrible first drafts, and more failed attempts, means more work created.
All that said, here are some thoughts about ideas, and why I think you should try and come up with more (bad) ideas every day.
Ideas are a commodity
If you think ideas are rare it’s because you’re not used to coming up with any.
The more ideas you come up with then the more ideas you’ll come up with. I love how Jonas Ellison put it:
Never be stingy with your ideas. Don’t say you’ll save them for another post, another story, another day. Put it out there. Circulate your ideas freely so your mind can generate new.
Since ideas (especially bad ones) are a dime a dozen, there’s no fear in giving them away and sharing them early and often. In fact, a bad idea in your hands might be a great idea in someone else’s. That’s because…
People are Greater Than Ideas
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull writes about how people are far more important than ideas. Saying:
If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.
Catmull also writes about how ideas are not singularly, perfectly-formed things. They’re half-thoughts. What-ifs, hunches, gut feelings, whispers of a dream, foggy afternoons.
A Bad Idea Does Not Reflect Your Talent, Character, or Taste
If you’re in an environment where you are afraid to share a bad idea, you need to change that environment. Don’t despise your own bad ideas and don’t despise other people’s.
We put so much emphasis on only having good ideas that we’ve assumed this posture where all ideas should be acted on. That’s silly. Just because you’ve had an idea doesn’t mean it now must be cared for and built.
Feel free to have lots and lots of horrible ideas and then throw them out. Give yourself freedom to have bad ideas. Give everyone you know — your friends, family, co-workers, bosses, peers, strangers you meet while standing in line at the coffee shop — permission to have bad ideas.
In fact, why not just…
Start With the Worst Idea You Can
I dare you.
Seriously, why not?
What is it you’re stuck on right now? What is the worst possible solution to that problem?
Coming up with a bad idea is so much easier than coming up with a good one. Start with the worst idea you can and let that build your momentum.
Bad ideas become the stepping stones to good ideas.
As you get more comfortable coming up with many ideas all of the time, you’ll learn to adapt this very important rule, which is…
Don’t be a Slave to the Tyranny of a New Idea
Ever feel like you have more ideas than time? I hope you do.
Having too many ideas is not a dilemma. The dilemma is to have no ideas at all.
We think having more ideas than time is a dilemma because new ideas are exciting, and we feel obligated to act on them and do something about them.
Don’t feel obligated. It’s okay to let good ideas die. You don’t have to act on every idea you come up with. Don’t give in to the tyranny of a new idea simply because it’s new.
As I said, and as I’m sure you are aware, there is something more important than coming up with ideas: finishing them.
If you have more ideas than time, that’s great. Focus on what you can do now. Believe me when I say that…
Great Ideas Come Back
Last fall (October 2014) we completely re-designed and re-booted the Tools & Toys website. I brainstormed with my team, worked with our designer/developer (Pat Dryburgh), and we made something awesome.
About 5 months later I stumbled across a page in my notebook from almost two years ago. On the page was a list of goals and ideas for Tools & Toys, and the list was filled with the exact same outline of goals and ideas that we’d just implemented. I had written it, forgot about it, and two years later when I was starting over “from scratch” those ideas came right back and I didn’t even know it.
But two years can be a long time to wait on an idea. Sometimes an idea won’t let you go. You know the ones I’m talking about. And so, in those cases, try to act quickly because…
Ideas Demise Over Time
When an idea truly grabs ahold of you, keeps you up at night, and wakes you up early in the morning, then it’s time to take action.
You know what I’m talking about. If and when you can, act on those best ideas quickly. When they grab ahold of you like that, it means they’ve got life on them.
When an idea has life on it like that…
Listen to What Your Idea Wants
Eventually the idea will take over. It will begin to think for itself. It will have its own needs and wants.
Listen to it. What does it want? What other ideas are branching out from this original one?
This happened to me as I was writing my book, The Power of a Focused Life. I spent 5 months writing the first draft. Then as I was doing research and working on the second draft I realized that this idea wanted to be different than what I originally imagined.
In response, I turned the book upside down, pulled it all apart, and re-wrote everything from scratch to create The Focus Course instead.
I never would have built the Focus Course if I hadn’t first started with the book. I needed to be in the midst of that project before I could see where it was ultimately headed.
It’s a rule of the universe of creativity that…
Action Brings Clarity
Once you start moving and acting on an idea, then you begin to get clarity about what the next step needs to be. It’s okay not to have it all figured out before you begin. Just begin, and let your feet take you.
Challenge: Come up with 5 ideas today
Or 7 if you’ve had your coffee; 10 if you’re feeling brave.
Below I’m sharing with you my 10 ideas for today. This is a list that is building off another idea I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while about doing a bunch of podcast miniseries that each focus on a very specific topic. Here are 10 topic ideas:
- Kansas City coffee shop reviews
- Short stories about inspirational and fascinating people
- Working from home
- Debt and budgeting
- Meaningful Productivity
- Making coffee at home
- Book reviews
* * *
The ability to solve interesting problems is an integral part of doing our best creative work. And doing work that matters means having the guts to try things that might not work.
If we’re a slave to every single new idea then we’ll never have the focus to finish a single thing. And if we’re afraid that our idea might be a bad one, we’ll never even get started.
* * *
Today’s article is a part of my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on June 23. If today’s article hit home for you, then I believe you will love the course. One of the primary goals of the Focus Course is to help you strengthen your creative imagination, find margin for thought, and do your best creative work.
It took us over a century to realize the changes and impact that the Industrial Revolution was making on our lifestyle, culture, economy, and educational system.
Technology has changed all of that again, but this time it took less than a decade.
Today, if we need advice on a topic, it’s as close as posting a question to Facebook or Twitter. If we don’t know an answer, we can Google it. If we want something, we can buy it from our phones and have it delivered to our house. If we have a moment of down time, our social network timelines guarantee we never have to be bored. And we have the world’s catalog of movies, music, and books available to us from our living room.
Nobody in the history of anything has ever lived like this before. It’s fantastic. Also, it’s a little bit terrifying.
There aren’t any experts in these fields any more. We’re all guessing about what’s next for education, the economy, communication, media, our jobs, our art, and our families.
Diligence, focus, art, parenting, marriage, priorities, work culture, and time management have always been moving targets. How much more now that we’re always connected thanks to the internet that lives in our pocket?
* * *
With time and focus being such precious commodities, it is all the more important to have a vision for our life and to run with it. Use it as a path for our creative work and as a guardrail for how we spend our time and energy.
So often I get this feeling that I can live however I want, in the moment, and over the long run everything will pan out for me. Something whispers to me that I needn’t worry about hard work, focus, planning, or diligence because one day my ship will come in and all the important things will just happen.
Alas, that is not how real life works. Those things don’t just happen all by themselves simply because I want them to. They happen through vision, planning, and a lot of hard work.
Benjamin Franklin wrote that “human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”
* * *
The dreams of our heart will not come to be through magic or luck. They are forged little by little, day by day. The most meaningful things in our lives are produced from the ground up with much focus and diligence.
Too much attention on the big, long-term goals and we despise the little daily steps needed to make progress. But too much focus on the granular, and it can be easy to feel like the “urgent” things are most important.
How do you reconcile these two vantage points? How do you have an eye for the long-term while also focusing on what’s most important right now? Why is big-picture planning so important to helping us navigate the small successes and failures we have every day?
If you know what it is you’re moving toward, then you can slice that down into something small and actionable every day. You can define “important work” as something that moves the needle forward rather than something that is merely urgent in the moment.
Having a defined goal can help us to focus on actually accomplishing our idea and making it happen. As I wrote in my article about fighting to stay creative, a clear goal is a significant stimulator for creativity.
Looming, unanswered questions often lead to inaction and procrastination. We get frustrated at ambiguity and indecisiveness in the work place, why do we tolerate it in our own life as well? Overcoming this is often as simple as taking time to define an end goal and then taking the first step toward that goal.
Another significant stimulator for creativity is diligence. And diligence, well, it isn’t a personality type — diligence is a skill we learn.
Some of us had a good work ethic instilled in us by our parents, some of us have had to cultivate it on our own later in life. It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability. Sitting around being idle while we wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done.
This, my friends, is why the Focus Course is so helpful. Half of the course — 20 days worth — is spent on the foundations of clarity and action. Where you define your goals and distill them to daily lifestyle practices. It will change your life to have a daily habit or two that contributes to your quality of life and that also move you forward in the things that matter.
The Focus Course doesn’t force or assume any methodology or system. Nor does it impose a particular schedule or routine. Rather, the course guides you through finding answers and clarity on your own. You also learn about and strengthen your own foundational character traits, such as personal integrity, creative imagination, self-efficacy, gratitude, and more.
You can live without regret in the age of distraction. You can change your attitudes and behaviors. You can raise your children in the midst of a Smartphone Generation. You can spend your time doing work that matters.
While The Focus Course will have the most impact the first time you go through it, it’s actually designed to be done once per year. It’s not something you consume once; something you graduate from and move on. Rather it’s meant to be a tool that you use over and over. That’s why you get lifetime access when you join.
As I said earlier in this article, diligence, focus, art, and entrepreneurship are all moving targets. You need a tool — a secret weapon as it were — to help you hit those targets and have fun in the process.
* * *
The Focus Course launches in just 9 days.
This course is unlike anything else out there that I know of.
Tyler Soenen is an engineer and project manager, and was one of my pilot members. He told me that compared to all of the productivity and life-focus-centric reading he’d done, The Focus Course has something original.
I am excited. Also, nervous. Very, very nervous. But the nerves and frightful anticipation are what tell me I’m doing something worthwhile.
5 Modules. 40 days. 75,000 words. 20 videos. A members-only forum. And more.
I have spent thousands of hours writing, researching, and architecting the content of this course. I’ve poured myself into building something that is professional, delightful, informative, fun, unique, and, most of all, very impactful.
Jaclynn Braden, a photographer and designer, who was another one of the pilot members, said that the course’s ability to combine deep introspection with applicable exercises is brilliant.
This course is so much more than ideas and principles that leave you, the reader, on your own to decipher and implement. Rather, The Focus Course is built on a foundation of action where you learn by doing. And yet it still has a massive amount of theory and training to support the why behind the what. I’m confident that the contents and value of the course are well worth the investment to take it.
If you’ve been tracking with the writing I’ve been doing here over the past year, you’ll know that I’ve written many articles out of the overflow of my work to build the content for The Focus Course. For these articles as well as my ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, the feedback has been fantastic.
Here is a brief list of just a few of the articles I’ve published over the past several months:
- Honesty, Clarity, and Action
- Celebrate Progress
- If Diligence is a Skill
- Meaningful Productivity
- How to Get it All Done
- No. Times a Thousand.
- There is No Finally
- The Note
- What it Takes to Do Work that Matters
- The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress
If any of these past articles have been helpful, encouraging, or inspirational to you then I hope you’ll consider the immense value found in The Focus Course. As I said, I cannot wait for it to launch.
Starting Monday and leading up to the launch, I’m going to be publishing a new article every day in a Countdown to The Focus Course.
Tuesday: You Have Ideas
Wednesday: The Jolt
Thursday: It’s Going to be a Fight
Friday: An Interview With Tyler Soenen
Saturday: An Interview with Joanna Eitel
Each article is along the topics of creativity, integrity, and focus that are so prevalent within the course itself. And some article will be for telling the practical and interesting behind-the-scenes story about why I made the course, what sets it apart, and what the feedback has been from the early pilot members.
Talk to you soon,
Long-time readers of this site will know that I’ve been a hard and fast OmniFocus user for almost five years now. However, for more than a year, I’ve actually been using a hybrid system for my task management: combining both digital and analog in my everyday juggling act.
If you’re familiar with the Eisenhower / Covey Matrix then you know all about Urgent vs Important. Of course, you don’t have to be familiar with the Urgent/Important Matrix to know that many tasks are urgent but that doesn’t mean they’re important. And, how often does the truly important work we need to do sit quietly for us to act on it, instead of crying out for our attention?
For digital, I use OmniFocus. And for analog I have a Baron Fig notebook and Signo DX 0.38mm pen. These two tools each serve as the different storehouses for the different quadrants of urgent and important.1
In general, my most important activities for the day are written down in my Baron Fig notebook — and almost always they are written down the day before.
OmniFocus is where I keep anything with a due date, as well as all the other administrative miscellany of my job. OmniFocus is for work that is important but not Most Important. Like many of you, I suspect, I’m at my computer for the bulk of my working hours. Thus, virtually all of the incoming tasks I need to capture are of the digital kind: they deal with emails, bills, invoices, website edits, servers, files, graphics, etc. And OmniFocus is great for this (as would be any digital task management app worth its salt).
I break up my day with writing and important-but-not-urgent tasks in the morning followed by administrative and other tasks in the afternoon. Or, in other words, I spend the first half of my day with the Baron Fig and the second half with OmniFocus.
There’s no reason I couldn’t just keep everything in OmniFocus or in the Baron Fig.2 But I like this hybrid approach.
There is something concrete to the act of using a pen to write down my most important tasks onto a piece of paper. And there’s something ever-so-slightly less distracting about coming downstairs and having a notebook open and waiting, listing out in my own handwriting what it is I need to get to straight away.
When I open up OmniFocus, as awesome as it is, it’s still full of buttons and colors and widgets and options. While these can be minimized (something I love about OF), I’m still an incessant fiddler and the last thing I need is something to fiddle with when I’m supposed to be writing.
When I sit down at my desk in the morning, it’s time to write.
My phone is in Do Not Disturb mode. So is my computer. The outside world can wait. For the next half hour I’m pushing the cursor.
This is my writing routine.
It sounds a bit regimented, but I’ve become a believer in the routine. Having a set time and place for doing my most important work is genius. I used to write when I felt like it — at some point during the day I’d hope to write something. Who knows when it would be or what the topic would be (I certainly did’t).
Now, I write at 7:30am. If I don’t feel like it, too bad. I can at least suffer through 30 minutes of mud. But what’s wild is that most days it takes just 5 or 10 minutes for the writing to start feeling pretty good. Or, if the writing sucks, at least the calm of it being just my coffee and my words begins to take over and even if I’m not feeling in the zone, I at least feel comfortable putting my thoughts down.
This is my time to write without inhibition. I’ll have the whole rest of the day to edit and re-write and figure out what I was trying to say. But for a writer, the hardest part is that initial step. To put the words together in the first place.
By giving myself no room for wiggling around or making excuses, I’ve found that having this set time to write means I actually write more than if I were to wait only for inspiration to strike. I write more words in general (usually 1,500 words every day) than days when I wait for inspiration. And my writing is of a higher quality — my crappy first drafts are much less crappy.
And, though my timer is set for 30 minutes, more often than not by the time the half-hour is up, I’m firing on all cylinders and I will continue to write for another hour or three.
As someone who writes for a living, I cannot think of anything more important for me to do each day than to actually write.
I’m 33, and I’ve been writing part-time since I was in my mid-20s and full-time since I was 29. If I don’t write, I don’t eat. But more than that, if I don’t write for too long then I get fidgety and idle.
I’m already thinking about ways I can better improve my daily writing routine. Right now I rarely write on the weekends and I can totally feel it on Monday mornings — not only am I starving to write by Monday, but I feel rusty when I do. Imagine that, after just two days off I can tell a difference.
This morning is a Thursday. And the writing feels great.
Maybe it’s the weather. It’s cloudy and drizzly outside: the perfect weather for writing. But I’ve also had all week to write, and I’m riding the momentum from the days gone by already and it serves me well.
But there’s one more thing…
When I sit down at my desk, coffee and keyboard ready to go, there is something else.
There, waiting for me on top of my desk and in front of my computer, is a handwritten note.
It’s the note I wrote to myself yesterday evening when the day was done.
The note says one thing. Today it says: “My Digital / Analog System”
500 words ago, I lied to you. I said my writing begins at 7:30 every morning.
The truth is that my writing for this morning began yesterday when I put that note on my desk. That note is my topic for the day. That note is the single most important element of my personal productivity system. Because that note is the single most important thing I have to do today.
* * *
Distractions, diversions, oddities, and excuses to procrastinate are aplenty. I want to cut all of them off at the pass so I can have the time and space to do my best creative work every single day.
And The Note is a critical component to that.
Writing down the topic that I’m going to write about tomorrow gives me a few advantages:
It gives my subconscious a 12-hour head start. The well of my writing mind gets the whole night to fill itself up with what it wants to say on the topic. I don’t have to be anxious and keep it at the front of my mind, wasting my time and energy thinking about. Tomorrow is when I will write about it.
Thus, when it comes time to write, I have all my energy at my disposal. When I sit down to write, I haven’t yet spent any of my willpower on trying to muster up an idea, or comb through a list of possibilities, or scour the internet looking for inspiration. It’s time to write and I am not desperate. Nor am I lost, dazed, or confused.
I am clear. I know exactly what to write about because it’s there before me. All that’s left is for me to open up my writing program and to write.
“Here, Shawn, write about this,” I tell myself. And so I do.
Sometimes the most creative, inspired, productive thing you can do is try to be as lazy as possible while still showing up to do the work.
If I finish in one day then I will publish it. If not, I will come back and keep working tomorrow. Or sometimes, if it’s horrible, I’ll just put it away and at least I did my writing for the day. But no matter what, at least I’ve had a small victory: I’ve written something.
The premise of today’s article actually touches on four ideas:
- Doing something today that will make life for my future self a little bit easier.
- Having a daily habit that centers around doing my best creative work.
- Having the deep personal integrity needed to show up and do the work even when I’m not inspired or motivated.
- Celebrating the small victories.
Just recently, I got an email from a reader, Elisha, sharing with me about how many of us know we need to make change in our lives, and often we even know what things specifically need to be changed. But for so many, he said, the biggest challenge is actually getting off our rear-ends and doing something and actually being disciplined.
If the ideas in today’s article hit home for you, then I believe you will love my online course,The Power of a Focused Life. And if you can relate to the email I got from Elisha then the Focus Course will serve you well.
The Black Belt test was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
I was 15, and at that point I’d literally spent half of my entire life as a martial artist. It feels like another lifetime ago. But even still, I can remember vividly just how physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting the testing and training was.
It was a Saturday. There were about 12 of us who tested for Black Belt that year. Afterwards everybody went out for pizza to celebrate. Also, we were starving.
The school was closed on Sundays.
Monday I was back at the studio, training and studying for my 1st Dan test that would be in a year.
Getting my Black Belt was a huge milestone in my life. However, though the belt rank was a goal, it wasn’t the goal.
You don’t show up every day, until. You simply show up every day.
It’s a miracle that I was able to grab hold of that concept at such a young age. Even now, almost 20 years later, it’s still so easy for me to forget that life is lived in the day-to-day. There is much more satisfaction in the small daily wins and the joy of consistently choosing doing the things which are meaningful, valuable, and important.
If you’ve got a habit of showing up every day then I guarantee you that along the way you’ll pass milestones and accomplish big goals. You’ll also have massive failures. When you do, celebrate them, learn from them, and then you keep on going.
Don’t let the accomplishment (or failure) of your goals define your success. Nor are they the primary factor upon which your happiness hinges.
“Once I get my black belt, then I’ll finally be a real martial artist.”
“Once I get out of school, then I can finally do something meaningful.”
“Once I get married, then I’ll finally be happy.”
“Once I buy a nice house, then I’ll finally be settled.”
“Once I get my dream car, then I’ll finally be able to have fun.”
”Once my website has 10,000 readers, then I’ll finally feel validated as a writer.”
No you won’t.
Once you get your black belt, you’ll discover just how much of a beginner you truly are. Once you get out of school, you’ll find out that corporate bureaucracy can be demoralizing and you’re still going to have to choose yourself. Once you get married, you’ll find out that sharing a life with someone is a lot of work. Once you buy that nice house, you’ll see that the new mortgage payment is double what your old rent used to be. Once you get that dream car, you’ll discover that it has car trouble, too. Once your website gets traffic and attention, you’ll discover there is a pressure to produce that can choke the creativity right out of you.
Black belts, college degrees, marriage, beautiful homes, awesome cars, and huge audiences are all wonderful things. But these milestones — these goals — don’t define your worth, character, or happiness.
They are milestones. You celebrate them. And then you get back to work.
The reason is this: if you are committed to showing up every day, only until, then you’ve set yourself up for disillusionment.
When you think about someone who is a black belt, you think about someone who has mastered martial arts. But the black belt test was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. I was tired and afraid and nervous. You’d think a “master” could breeze through something at that point.
If you’re doing something that matters, there will always be resistance. Distractions, excuses, and challenges will always be right at your doorstep.
Don’t wait for the fear to go away, because it won’t.
Don’t wait for the risk to disappear, because there will always be risk.
Show up every day when it’s frightful. When it’s risky. When it’s tense. When it hurts. Because it will always be that way — the “finally” moment never comes.
Don’t seek to eliminate the tension. Instead, learn how to thrive in the midst of it.
This is why I created The Focus Course
Thriving in the midst of tension is one of the primary themes behind The Focus Course. And I’m so happy to finally announce that The Focus Course will be launching in just 3 weeks (on June 23)!
Over the past year I have read so many books regarding creativity, productivity, focus, etc. And it made me realize that my own writing on this topic needed to be of a different kind. A book (much like a website or an email newsletter), in and of itself, is awesome for communicating ideas and imparting inspiration. But then the action is left to the reader.
There are many topics where ideas and inspiration are exactly what you need. But for topics such as doing our best creative work, overcoming distractions, breaking our inbox and urgency addictions, building our personal integrity, and defining what meaningful productivity is in our lives, it can be immensly helpful to learn by doing.
Peter Drucker said that the greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.
* * *
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing more about what’s in the Focus Course and what sets it apart from anything else out there. In short, it’s an action-centric, 40-day course that will change your life.
Here’s a testimony I just got in yesterday from one of the Pilot Members, Tyler Soenen:
This course forced me to beat the resistance and do the work. The result is that I learned so much more because I actually did the work and tasted the fruit that so many productivity books talk about. And this was huge for me. In all of the reading I’ve done, the The Focus Course had something new and original that was very beneficial to my life.
And here’s the video I just finished that shares the “why” behind the Focus Course:
Deleting Watch Faces
As you know, force pressing on your Watch face from the watch face screen gives you the option to change and customize your Watch’s watch face.
But I have a few additional tips I haven’t seen around:
First off, as you scroll through the list of faces, you can remove any face from this list that you don’t want in there.
Swipe up on the face and you’ll get the option to delete it. Note that you’re not actually deleting that face from your Watch, you’re simply removing it from the list of quick-access watch faces.
At the end of the watch face list is the option to add a new face. From here you can add a new instance of any one of the watch face types. So, if you deleted your previous instance of the Mickey Mouse face, you can bring him back.
Adding and Saving Watch Faces
Now, what’s especially great about the ability to add new faces isn’t to bring back ones you’ve deleted, but because you can have more than one customized version of a face.
In short, your list of watch faces can be a customized collection of various face designs and functionality to suit your needs. This is one of the main advantages of a digital smart watch.
As seen in the photo at the top of this article, my most-frequently-used Watch face is Utility. I have the dial set to show the least amount of detail as possible with day and date at 3 o’clock. The top-right corner tells me the outside temperature, and the top left corner shows my activity rings.
However, last weekend I was at a wedding and wanted something a bit more simple and classy to go with my suit. So I created a customized version of the Simple watch face with no dial at all, and no complications other than the weather in the top right corner. Furthermore, the second hand color was set to match my pocket square (I mean, why not?).
Another favorite watch face is Modular. Over a regular weekend, when chances are I’m outside, I often use Modular with all sorts of complications enabled: weather, timer, when sunset is, etc. These are all the things that are especially relevant and helpful to me if I’m doing yard work.
Modular for weekends and yard work. pic.twitter.com/ah5KjaZCz4— Shawn Blanc (@shawnblanc) May 30, 2015
While Modular certainly lends itself to being filled up with data, it also can make for an extremely simple face design — just turn off all or most of the complications.
Lastly, I have an alternate version of Utility that is just like the one mentioned above but with the Timer complication enabled in the bottom center. This is handy for when I’m cooking on the backyard grill and need to set (and see) repeating timers for checking the chicken, etc.
The watch face is the main “Home screen” of Apple Watch. And therefore the design and complications in use play a huge role in how you use and interact with your Apple Watch. Having a few different faces saved for quick-access is pretty helpful.
Read the Manual
In the box that your Apple Watch came in, there’s a small user’s guide. It outlines just a few of the basic interactions and functions of your Watch. If, like me, you ignored it when your Watch first came, take a moment to read over it. You’ll probably learn something new — I did.
(This tip, along with the next one, I picked up from John Gruber during his episode of The Talk Show with David Sparks.)
Set Text to Bold
This one is a non-obvious tip, and some may not like it, but you should at least give it a shot.
Go to the settings app within your Watch, tap on “Brightness and Text Size” and set Bold Text to be on. It will require your Watch to reboot (takes just a minute).
Here are a few examples of how bold (top) and non-bold (bottom) look:
As you can see in the screenshots, it’s not truly bold — it’s more like semi-bold, or medium. It makes certain text elements on your Watch ever so slightly readable, and on such a tiny computer screen that’s something that can be a nice change.
Try Force Pressing on Every Screen
One of the slightly non-obvious interaction methods with your Watch is to force press on various screens.
Force pressing on the watch face is how you’re able to switch and customize different face designs.
Force pressing in an iMessage thread with someone gives you the options to reply to that person, see their contact details, or send your location to them.
Force pressing on an activity ring screen (Stand, Move, Exercise) gives you the option to change your move goal.
And many 3rd-party apps implement force pressing as well. You never know where it will present something useful.
Disable the Option Prompt for Sending Audio or Dictation
If you’ve ever tried dictating a text message to your Watch, you probably know it’s a bit of a hassle. Cool, yes. Super seamless, not always.
For me, one thing that was an extra step was that after dictating the message to my Watch and waiting for Siri to roundtrip with my iPhone in order to translate, I then had to tap “Done” and then had to choose if I wanted to send the audio recording of my dictation or the actual text.
I always sent the text, never the audio. If you’re in the same boat, there’s a setting that will save you a step. Simply do this:
Launch the Apple Watch app on your phone, scroll down to “Messages” and then tap on “Audio Messages”. From there you have the option to always do just Dictation or just the audio recording of your voice.
Customize Your Default Text Message Replies
From the same settings screen as above (Apple Watch app on your iPhone → Messages), you can also set your own default replies.
There are six slots available for you to customize. And these default replies are what you see when you go to compose a new text message to someone from your Watch.
You also see these replies at the end of the list when you are replying to an incoming message. Apple Watch does a pretty good job at thinking for you about what you may want to say in certain situations, and so those canned responses are at the top. If you don’t like any of them, you can keep scrolling to get to your six default replies.
Locking the Screen
Did you know that if you put your hand over the entire Watch face it will lock the screen? Yes, you could lower your wrist. But if you need some closure and want to see that the screen has locked, simply cover the whole face.
Though I personally prefer the standard crown placement, if you’d prefer to have the crown on the left side instead of the right, there’s a setting for that.
Craig Hockenberry calls it the Reverse Crown and he highly recommends it.
Go to the settings app on your Watch → General → Orientation → and then tap “Left” for Crown placement.
This is also where you can tell your Apple Watch that you are left handed.
Over on iMore, Rene Ritchie has, naturally, put together a comprehensive rundown of what Siri can do on your Apple Watch. And it’s quite a bit, actually: set reminders, alarms, and timers; send messages; launch apps; show the weather or time for anywhere.
The things I most often use Siri for are setting timers and sending messages. Because Siri on your Watch has to go through your iPhone in order to parse what it is you’re saying and fetch results, it’s not always the fastest option.
I’ve tried setting location-based reminders — “When I get home, remind me to upload the files for Josh” — but they rarely work.
As you probably know, you can bring Siri up in one of two ways: either pressing and holding on the Digital Crown, or else raising your wrist and saying “Hey Siri…”
And so, my biggest tip for how to use Siri is this: when you bring up Siri by talking — “Hey Siri…” — keep on talking. Especially if you have a multi-layered command. Such as sending a message to someone.
So, for example, if you’re sending a message, say the whole command and the text message all at once: “Hey Siri, send a message to my wife I’m on my way.” Saying it all at once will bring up Siri, translate your message, and then put you into the Messages app with the text ready to send. From there you can say “Hey Siri, Send.” (Thanks, Jason!)
For the situations where you need hands free but can’t get Siri to work, fortunately Apple Watch recognizes touch input from your nose.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to doing work that matters?
A lot of people say money. As in, a lack of money.
A lack of money can certainly be an obstacle. But it can also be an excuse.
It’s awesome to have the funds we need to give us the time and other resources that will help us do work that matters. But if we say we can’t do anything meaningful because it’s not our full-time job, that’s fear talking.
Now, there are cases where money truly is a debilitating issue. I have friends and family members who just can’t seem to get ahead — at times they feel as if they’re drowning. Money problems can be extremely demotivating, crippling, and depressing.
However, right now I want to talk about those who see money as their biggest challenge to doing work that matters and yet have never stopped to consider if there are alternatives. Or perhaps you see the paycheck as a validation of the work you’re doing — you need the promise of income as a pat on the back that you’re doing something valuable.
But the truth is…
Money is a tool, not a validation
You with money may have an advantage over you without money, but it’s not a guarantee. At the end of the day, what money does is buy opportunity.
Opportunity of time: if you had a million dollars in the bank to pay all your monthly living expenses and to pay someone else to handle all the menial tasks of your life, then you could spend all your time working on your craft. But even if you had all the time in the world, it doesn’t guarantee you’d choose to do meaningful work.
Opportunity of collaboration and community: if you had a million dollars, you could hire a team to work with. But even with a hundred million, there’s no guarantee that you’d be able to hire an all-star staff of hard-working, kind, fun, brilliant, self-starters who all get along.
Opportunity of networking: if you had a million dollars, people might invite you to their fancy dinners, and ask you to collaborate with them. But even if so, there’s no guarantee that the right people will notice you
Opportunity of research and discovery: if you had a million dollars you could buy all the books you need to learn up on a subject, travel somewhere to a conference to meet new people and learn new things, and more.
Opportunity to use better tools: if you had a million dollars you could buy the nicest camera, the fastest computer, the highest quality paint brushes. But even then, there’s no guarantee that the tools at your disposal would empower you do to work that matters.
If money is your biggest challenge to doing your best creative work, ask yourself what advantage or opportunity it is that you’re looking to money to solve. Once you figure that out, ask yourself if there’s a different solution to your challenge.
If you say you need money so you can have more time to do the work that matters to you, and yet you’re watching an hour of TV every day, then money’s not the first problem. How you’re spending your time is.
If you say you need money to afford the right tools, yet you go out to eat every day and have a monthly car payment, perhaps you should assess your spending and budgeting.
The real obstacles are fear and not being willing to sacrifice
I spent four years writing shawnblanc.net during evenings, weekends, and lunch breaks before I was able to quit my job and take the website full time. Jason Kottke had been writing online for 7 years before he quit his job to take kottke.org full-time. Myke Hurley spent four years podcasting before he was able to take his passion full-time. John Gruber wrote Daring Fireball on the side for 4 years before making it his full-time gig.
In short, it takes time — years, usually — before doing the work you love can get to a point where it is also the work that pays the bills. But sometimes, it never pays the bills.
Are you willing to show up every day for 4 years?
Talking to a friend about this just this morning, he said that he doesn’t think it’s about money at all — it’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice to do the work they love. People don’t want to give up all the things they need to give up, so instead they place the burden of action on having more money.
* * *
In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna writes that there are four obstacles to doing our most important work: Money, Time, Space, and Vulnerability.
While money, time, and space are the reasons given most often for not choosing Must, there’s another fear that’s far scarier and spoon about much less.
Choosing Must means that you have to confront some very big fears. It will make you feel vulnerable.
Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. As anyone who writes, draws, or takes pictures on a regular basis can tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be hard and frightful.
I don’t want to minimize how helpful it can be to have a financial safety net in place, nor how frightening it can be when you’re barely scraping by. I’ve been in debt, I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck even though I didn’t have to, I’ve survived on less than minimum wage, and I’ve had enough money to take a year off if I wanted. In all those seasons, there were still challenges and fears that I had to press through in order to do work that mattered.
Elle Luna also writes: “It is here, standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, that we feel the enormous reality of our fears, and this is the moment when many of us decide against following our intuition, turning away from that place where nothing is guaranteed, nothing is known, and everything is possible.”
With all kindness and tenderness, let me challenge you: If it’s mostly about the money, then perhaps it’s not about doing your best creative work after all. If you see money as your biggest challenge, perhaps you’re not being honest with yourself.
Does this sound familiar? You pull your iPhone out to check the time, and the next thing you know you’ve been scrolling through Twitter for 6 minutes and now you’re reading about the migration patterns of cats. You don’t even like cats.
I’ve worn a wristwatch for years. For one, I like to know what time it is. But also, wearing a watch is an excellent solution to passively checking Twitter and Instagram when all I wanted to know was the time.
Last year I wrote an article in praise of my analog watch. In short it was about how my analog watch does one thing well: tell time.
Now, my affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I’m against the concept of the smartwatch. But after 8 years of having an iPhone within arm’s reach, my experience has taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information at your fingertips is almost always paired with the reality of distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.
Having the Internet in your pocket isn’t always roses and ice cream.
* * *
Naturally, I pre-ordered my Apple Watch the morning it went on sale. The little critter arrived just over a week ago.
As a gadget geek, I think Apple Watch is awesome. It looks great, it has some gorgeous watch faces, the fitness tracking and goals are fantastic and healthily addictive, and it pairs so well with my iPhone.
But just because it’s an awesome and fun gadget doesn’t guarantee it’s helpfulness. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, one of the reasons I wear a watch is so I can check the time without using my iPhone.
Not to be all philosophical, but one of the big question that’s been looming in my mind regarding Apple Watch is this: For those who want to spend less time staring at their iPhone, will Apple Watch make that easier?
After a week — which, admittedly, is a very short amount of time — my answer to the above question is yes: Apple Watch makes it easier to leave my iPhone alone.
Apple Watch fits, appropriately, right between a smartphone and a dumb watch. Apple Watch is certainly more feature-rich and “connected” than my analog watches ever were, yet it’s not anywhere near an “iPhone 2.0” type of product.
In other words, Apple Watch is just powerful enough to be useful and fun, but not so powerful that it’s distracting or frustrating.
Apple Watch certainly could be distracting if you let it. But that’s easily avoided by not installing too many apps or allowing too many types of incoming notifications. Where Watch differs from iPhone is that the former is not very good at being a passive entertainment device.
While you can install apps such as Instagram and Twitterrific on your Watch, using them is like reading the news on a postage stamp. Doable but not delightful.
Just Smart Enough
For me, there are three things that make Apple Watch great so far: Notifications that matter, activity tracking, and Complications.
On my phone I already get only the most sacred of notifications: text messages, Twitter DMs, Slack Mentions and PMs, emails from VIPs, event reminders, Reminder reminders, new calendar events added to my shared calendars, Vigil alerts, Dark Sky weather alerts.
It sounds like a lot when listed out all at once, but aside from text messages, the vast majority of those things rarely ever fire. In fact, I take pride in how infrequently my iPhone beeps or buzzes.
And on my watch, I get tapped even less: text messages, event reminders, and Dark Sky weather alerts only.
We’ll see how this pans out over time, but so far getting just these few types of notifications on my wrist have proven to be immensely helpful and not the least bit annoying.
And using the Watch for messages is usually great. For the vast majority of the friends and family whom I text message with throughout the day, we communicate with emojis and short quips — something the Watch is perfectly suited for.
The activity tracking has is great. Too great, perhaps…
Totally waiting until after I go to sleep to install Watch OS 1.0.1. Don’t want to fall behind in steps counted and calories burned.— Shawn Blanc (@shawnblanc) May 19, 2015
Getting those rings filled every day has become so compelling. It’s too soon to tell if it’s simply the fun of a new “game” that will soon wear off, or if the awareness of my activity along with the daily goals will bring about an improvement in my healthy activity and behavior.
As for the Watch face, I’ve settled in on Utility. I have the detail dialed down to the most simple possible. And I’ve three complications set up: activity rings in the upper left corner, current temperature in the upper right corner, and day + date on the face. Each morning I change the accent color, usually to match my shirt, because why not?
At a glance I can see the time and the current temp, which is so nice. I’m getting ready to go for a run, should I plan to go to the gym or is it nice enough to run outside? … We’re about to load the kids up in the car, do they need jackets right now?
I have a secondary version my Utility watch face saved that has the timer complication at the bottom center. When grilling (which we do about 3 times a week now that the weather is warming up), it is great to have the timer just one tap away on my wrist.
Complications are invaluable, and the delta between pulling out your phone to check your calendar, or the weather, versus looking at your wrist is massive.
Agreed. It’s the complications and the basic notifications that make Apple Watch just smart enough. Taking a little bit of time to set up what I do and don’t want on my watch has already paid dividends.
There is still much to be improved about the Watch’s core functionality (such as improvements with Siri dictation (editing, anyone?), and 3rd-party apps that don’t have to round trip to the iPhone). However, my first impression of the Apple Watch has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s attractive, useful, and, most of all, fun.
On this week’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly, I seek to define what “Your Best Creative Work” actually means.
It’s a phrase I’ve been thinking and talking about for years. Does it only relate to “artsy” stuff? I don’t think so.
* * *
Here’s a picture of someone doing her best creative work:
She shows up every day. When it’s easy and when it’s hard. It doesn’t matter. She is committed.
This is something only she can do. Yet even still, it might not all work out as planned. There is no clear path about comes next. There is a lot of guessing. There is fear.
Some days the work is so much harder than others. Some days everything comes together and it’s amazing. At the end of the day, it’s always rewarding.
She is telling a story. Every day she is trying to connect with others. Her work is emotional. Relational. There is learning. Teaching. Guessing. Loving. She is a mother.
* * *
When we talk about “doing our best creative work”, it’s easy to define creativity as “artsy”. Writing. Designing. Taking photographs. But creative work happens in a variety of forms.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a project manager, and he very much views his work as creative. Creating a spreadsheet to analyze data — that is a form of creativity, and it should be validated as creative. The way a mother or father raises their children and the tactics they deploy. The choices we make as freelancers, small-business owners, founders, or CEOs. It’s all creative
The scope of creativity and meaningful work goes far beyond art.
Any degree of freedom you use to do your work means you have a choice about how you go about it. And that is creativity. You’ve been given the gift of choice, and you can use that to give back and do work that matters.
* * *
What do you think about when you think about art and creativity?
I think about emotions. Fear, doubt, joy, happiness, love, and honesty.
I think about telling a story. Encouraging, inspiring, educating, and entertaining others.
I think about people. Relationships and connecting.
* * *
Doing my best creative work is an amalgamation of both doing work that matters and also taking joy in the journey.
Meaningful work, work that matters, is something that I have to do. I am compelled to do it. If it doesn’t work out, if nobody likes it, if I never make a dollar, that’s unfortunate. But I still had to do it. And so, if it didn’t work out or it didn’t make a dollar, I have to figure out how to keep doing it better. Meaningful work is also something which I hope will make the lives of other people better. Either by entertaining them, educating them, or helping them in their journey.
Having joy in the journey is just that. Having fun. Pursuing “mastery”. Being present in the moment. Getting in the zone. Creating without inhibition. Trusting your gut.
Put these two together, and boom. You’ve got yourself a recipe for your best creative work.
When you define your best creative work like this, it changes everything. Suddenly it’s less about the quality of art you produce and it’s more about being valuable, meaningful, and honest.
And you realize that your best creative work is part of every area of your life: work, family, rest, personal life, etc.
Doing your best creative work every day is a choice. You get to choose to do work that matters.
I try to make that choice when I’m at my keyboard, when I’m on a date with my wife, when I have half an hour of quiet alone time, and when I’m playing catch in the back yard with my two boys. In those moments, it’s not about the context. Art. Relationships. Business. Each one is a chance to choose to be honest, true, vulnerable, and personal.
Yesterday on Twitter I asked folks what challenges they face when it comes to doing meaningful work.
These are some of the answers I got back:
Fear that I’m too late.
Fear that my work won’t be good enough.
Fear that my work will be rejected.
Fear of unworthiness.
Giving in to distractions to escape / pacify the fear.
Finding something that I feel is meaningful to work on.
Stuck in meetings, leaving no time to do any meaningful work.
Having to put out fires and check inboxes, leaving no time or energy to do meaningful work.
Am I even capable or equipped to do meaningful work? If it’s out there, do I even recognize it?
Moving too fast; rushing into projects and ideas.
Holding back; afraid of success and the necessary changes it would bring.
Lack of financial resources. Having to spend time doing non-important work in order to pay the bills.
Spending too much time doing meaningless, trivial stuff.
Frustrated by my capacity. I could and should be doing more, and the days feel as if they slip away.
There are so many distractions. I have a hard time keeping focused.
Fear that those I look up to won’t respect the work I do.
Getting others around me to be motivated and make change.
The fight to stay creative is real.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes that “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity”, or, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” is sure to elicit resistance.
Resistance comes in all shapes and sizes: Fear, distractions, diversions, interruptions, procrastination, hesitancy, shame, lethargy, doubt, et al.
In my experience, the greatest challenges to doing work that matters are these:
- Lack of clarity: Do you even know what meaningful, important work looks like and how to do it?
- Not thirsty enough: Not willing and eager to learn, grow, evaluate, try new things, and take risks.
- Fear: In all shapes and sizes, as listed above.
- Distractions (and diversions): which are both internal and external.
- Inconsistency: not willing to show up every day.
Therefore, if you want to do work that matters, this is what you need:
Where grit is tenacity. Work ethic. Stubbornness. It’s the willingness to press through your fear, overcome the your distractions, and show up every day even when it’s hard.
If you’re reading this, you’re thirsty. You’ve got grit, too. Probably more than you think.
But do you have clarity? Do you know what your meaningful, important work looks like? And if so, do you know what you need to do to make it happen?
Clarity is at the foundation of meaningful work and meaningful productivity. We need clarity about who we are, our values, our vision for life, what’s important, and what we can do every day to stay steady in our aim of doing our best creative work.
If you know what you want (clarity) and you’re motivated to go after it (thirst), then oftentimes the grit takes care of itself. Fear is less likely to hold you back. Distractions suddenly aren’t so distracting.
* * *
You are capable of doing work that matters. We all have fears. We all have opportunities for distractions and diversions. We all have to choose to show up every day. You won’t find someone doing meaningful work for the long haul who doesn’t have at least some measure each of clarity, thirst, and grit.
P.S. As you may know, I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. The Focus Course solves the very issues I’ve written about in this post. Well, mostly. While I can help you with clarity and grit, thirst, I’m afraid, is all up to you.
The Course is on track to launch in the late June! This week we are recording the 20 videos that will be part of the course (see below). The end is in sight and I am so excited to share this with you!
A few days ago I got an email from Ross Kimes who was a member of the Pilot course. He wrote to tell me about how the Pilot version Focus Course helped him, and with his permission I’ve shared it here for you.
On this week’s episode of The Weekly Briefly I talk about how thirsty we are to do meaningful work. It takes more than just showing up every day to do our best creative work. And if we focus too much on just the output we are doing (without taking time to learn and grow) then it can easily lead to burnout.
This week’s show is sponsored by Wired In: Eliminate Distractions. Stay focused. Get a custom, wireless, LED ‘Busy’ sign from Wired In.
And below is a transcript of the episode for those who prefer to read.
Show Notes and Transcript
I used to hate to read. I didn’t think I hated it, but I did.
I never wanted to read. I never enjoyed it. Reading felt like a waste of time. Unless I was on vacation. But reading during work hours? No way.
Four years ago I had no idea what I was doing. When I first started writing shawnblanc.net full-time, I was clueless and afraid.
In the words of Ray Bradbury, “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
Those early years of writing this site were difficult. They were fun, to be sure, but they were hurried. I held on to this sense that I had to keep up with the pace of the internet. And on top of that, I didn’t know what sort of writer I wanted to be or what sort of things I wanted to publish on the site. So I was running around in a hurry to publish who knows what.
Nearly all my attention was focused on publishing.
Frequency (not consistency). That was my primary measure of success. Or, at least, that’s what I assumed all the paying members wanted: more published words every day.
They tell you to ship early and ship often. As a writer, shipping means getting your words onto the page and then getting them out there into the world.
My focus was so intent on the frequency of my publishing that I rarely felt liberty to do anything that took me away from getting at least one or two links up every day. This was folly.
In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey writes about what he calls “Sharpening the Saw”.
We often get so busy “sawing” (producing results) that we forget to “sharpen our saw” (maintain or increase our capacity to produce results in the future). We may neglect to exercise, or fail to develop key relationships. We may not be clear about what’s important and meaningful to us. If we fail to build our personal capacity in these areas, we quickly become “dulled,” and worn out from the imbalance. We’re unable to move forward as effectively in the other roles of our lives.
Maintaining and increasing our capacity is foundational for success in every area of our life. In short, don’t stop learning; don’t stop training.
But I rarely ever took time to read and study. I never took mid-day breaks. Even though I could set my own schedule, I usually worked evenings and weekends just to keep up frequency (not because I was working on something specific that had me motivated).
My intense focus on frequency burned me out. Many times. By the grace of God, I didn’t quit.
Here’s an entry I wrote in my Day One almost two years ago:
What do you do when you look at the work you’ve been doing for the past day or week or month and you think, this sucks? I don’t know if there’s an answer or not for getting past crappy work, but I bet you a sandwich the answer probably involves doing more crappy work.
Do as much as you can. Keep writing. Keep making. Write 1,000 crappy words every day. Then put them in a drawer and pretend they don’t exist lest you get depressed.
In my years of writing and doing creative-y stuff, I’ve discovered the difference between burnout and frustration. Between immaturity and fear.
Doing our best creative work every day is a hard and frightful task. But we’re in it for the long haul. We have to remember that there is a lot more to it than merely showing up to do the work.
Showing up to do the work is the brave and noble part of the endeavor. It’s what all the books and motivational posters focus on. And for good reason: if we don’t show up, well then, we’re not actually doing the work.
But let us not get so busy producing that we forget to maintain or increase our capacity to keep producing results.
For me, there were a lot of reasons I hated the idea of learning and improving in my “early years” as a writer. (I put “early years” in quotes because I’ve been a full-time writer for all of 4 years now. I’ve still got about 46 years to go before I’m out of the “early years”. But, the reasons I despised learning in those days were because:)
- I was focused on the new and the now.
- I cared too much about my site’s stats.
- I thought I needed to keep up with the speed of the Internet in order to be interesting and relevant.
- I didn’t have a long-term goal for any of my writing endeavors, other than to write about what was interesting to me today.
This is not to say that the work I was doing was bad, or wrong. Not at all. I’m exceedingly proud of the links and articles I have published here over the years. But where I needed change was in the foundation from which my writing grew.
I’m still as nerdy about apps and gadgets as I always was. Over the years, however, I’ve found a different pace that works better for me. Partly necessitated by becoming a dad.
I don’t want any of my websites to publish at the speed of the Internet. Because it is impossible to keep up with unless you neglect everything else in your life. And even then, you can only keep up with a tiny sliver of the real-time Web. It can be fun for a while, but it’s not healthy or sustainable for anyone who wants to do meaningful work for decades.
Far more valuable to me than speed and ”First!” are things such as thoughtfulness, whimsy, helpfulness, and long-term relevancy. In my experience, many of these values hide themselves from environments where urgency is the dominant motivational factor.
Who can be thoughtful when they’re in a rush?
Hurry up and be thoughtful! Hurry up and be clever! Hurry up and be helpful! Hurry up, but don’t mess up!
For me, I find much more satisfaction creating something with a long-tail of relevancy than a momentary flash in the pan. And it’s out of this contentment to publish at a slower frequency that I re-discovered the value of learning.
* * *
The value of learning
Would you scoff at the farmer who spends time keeping his tools in good working condition? Would you scoff at the painter who spends time cleaning her brushes? What about the scientist who spends time doing research and experimenting? Or the athlete who practices?
Of course not.
There is a strong connection between practicing and learning and then doing.
You must have both. Some people spend their whole life in school, never creating anything on their own. Others create, do the work, but think that’s the only thing that matters.
I know I fell into that latter group. All my focus was on making and doing and publishing. So much so that I despised learning and researching and giving my mind time to rest and think.
Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Cheeck-sent-me-hai—lee) is a noted psychologist, and the architect the notion called Flow.
Csikszentmihalyi’s theory is that people are happiest when they are in a state of Flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
Finding flow in our everyday lives is important for several reasons.
- It increases our happiness
- It gives us a focus on effectiveness
- It’s where we do our best creative work
- It’s how we make progress
- It helps us to learn new skills
However, finding flow can be challenging; it requires more activation energy. It’s much easier to just turn on the television than it is to get out the paint brushes and a new canvas and change into our artist’s painting clothes. But the latter is where we are more likely to get in the zone, to become lost in our work.
But here’s what I’m getting at: The experience of flow acts as a magnet for learning.
When we are working on something that is challenging to us and which requires the highest level of our skills, then we want to learn. Not only do we learn in the midst of our work, but our work drives our desire to learn more.
And learning — or, as Stephen Covey puts it: “sharpening the saw” — is critical to growth and quality for all the areas of our life: spiritual, physical, relational, recreational, vocational, and economical.
How Thirsty Are You?
As part of my own journey in creating The Focus Course, I’ve become a student of topics such as doing meaningful work, diligence, focus, distractions, work/life balance, and more.
I’ve always been a student of these, but mostly through my own trial and error. Now that I am building a platform to teach others, I wanted to know what smarter men and women than I have had to say about these topics.
Between my bookshelf and my Kindle there are more than 50 books about creativity, business, time management, goal setting, imposter syndrome, productivity, workaholism, parenting, and more. I’ve read all but the last few.
For a while I was getting a new book delivered 3-4 times per week (thank you, Amazon Prime). My wife, lovingly, joked that I’d gone off the deep end…
Hubby is writing a book on productivity. Either that or the self help books arriving daily in the mail are a serious hint hint. #okayalready— Anna Blanc (@annablancihop) March 17, 2015
I bought the books in paperback or hardback because I wanted to highlight them, write in them, dogear them, put sticky notes in them, and have three books open all at once to compare and contrast them if I wanted to.
In his book, What to Do When it’s Your Turn, Seth Godin writes that “the internet means you can learn anything you want, if you are thirsty enough to do the work to learn it.”
And yet, despite this vast ocean of awesomeness, most of us don’t really want to learn anything. We’d rather zone out on Twitter or Netflix. Or burn out trying to make something with the sole aim that it’ll go viral.
More than 100,000 people regularly sign up for advanced computer science courses online, courses that are taught by great professors and are free to all who enroll. Shockingly, 99 percent — 99 percent! — of the students drop out before they finish the course.
Not thirsty enough.
Learning is a chance to take a risk. To try something new. To observe and evaluate. To ask a question and then listen to the answer. It’s a chance to discover. To have a revelation. To have a conversation.
We learn by reading, listening, observing, doing, teaching, failing, fixing.
We can maintain and increase our capacity in all areas of our life. Ask your spouse if she has a new favorite song. Ask your co-workers what they’re struggling with at work. Watch a YouTube video about woodworking and spend the weekend making a wobbly bench with your kids.
Learning helps us to do better work. It also helps us connect with others.
It took me a few years to come to grips with the fact that it was okay for me to take time away from “producing” in order to maintain and increase my capacity to do creative work. And once I did, I realized how valuable it was to always be learning.
This is what my home office workspace looked like in 2007:
(I still have that trashcan. And the weird blocks underneath the legs of the desk are there because I mis-measured by about 3/4 of an inch when I tried to shortening the height of the desk to something more comfortable.)
It was dorky, but it was also inspirational. Inspirational for what it stood for, really. That photo was taken around the same time as the beginning of my weekends-and-evenings freelancing career. I had just bought that refurbished Mac Pro and 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, and now I was ready for the big leagues. It felt great to have a new machine (doing print design on the 12-inch PowerBook was not very ideal), and a newly organized workspace with some semblance of organization and structure. You know the feeling.
A few years later, we ripped out the carpet to reveal the hardwood underneath. Painted the walls, got a new desk from IKEA, and bought a lamp.
That’s the desk where I launched my full-time gig writing shawnblanc.net.
A few years after that, we moved my office downstairs because the upstairs room was to become a nursery for our first son, Noah.
Here’s what my space looked like last year:
Since that time things have de-cluttered a bit. Mostly thanks to the Retina iMac (which is still incredible by the way).
Here’s what my desk looks like today:
As desks are wont to do, mine certainly gets cluttered and messy. But I try to keep it clean and not just let the mess get out of control. For me, inspiration and ideas and calm are more prevalent when the peripherals are dealt with.
My desk is where I spend so much of my time. It’s where I work and where I create. I write, design, pay bills, ignore emails, edit and share pictures with my family, and more… all from here. I’m here right now, in fact.
When I think about showing up every day and doing my best creative work, I think about this space. It has certainly changed and evolved over the past decade, but one thing it’s always had has been a surface to work on, a keyboard to type on, and an internet connection to publish through.
Your creative workspace may be different. But regardless of what or why you’ve got what you’ve got, here are a few things every good creative workspace needs:
Ritual: As I wrote last week, by far and away, the best thing you can do for your creative workspace is to build some ritual / routine into it. When you combine the power of a consistent “where” along with a consistent “what and when”, then you’re basically putting your creative genius on autopilot.
Fun: Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work. If there’s nothing playful, enjoyable, or fun about your workspace how can you hope to create anything inspirational or vibrant? All work and no play makes our creative work very dull indeed.
For me, I have fun built right into the very core of what I do: writing. My keyboard is as clicky as they come, and I love it. Secondly, I have a computer that I love to use: the Retina iMac which is a marvel. As someone who works with words all day long not only do I have my favorite way to type them with, I also have a jaw-dropping display to view them on.
Inspiration Rich: Speaking of fun, a good workspace is inspirational. A few friends of mine who have some pretty great workspaces include: Sean McCabe’s office, which is filled with art prints; Cameron Moll’s space which is very open and organized, but yet also is clearly lived in; and Jeff Sheldon’s office studio, which, like Cameron’s is very organized but very lived in.
I have a bit of inspiration in my place. My bookcase is packed with hardbacks, paperbacks, magazines, Field Notes, Moleskins, and Baron Figs. On the walls are prints of photographs I’ve taken over the years. But looking at some of the aforementioned office spaces, I know there is much I could do to enhance the life, vibrancy, and overall inspiration of my own workspace.
Distraction Poor: A good workspace empowers us to do our best creative work. Distractions are pretty much the opposite of inspiration and motivation. In addition to not letting myself check any stats or social media before I’ve put in my morning writing time, I also get rid of physical distractions in a couple of ways.
For one, I clean up my desk at the end of the day so that tomorrow when I come down to work, there’s nothing left undone that I need to tend to first. Secondly, I put on headphones. I work form home, but right upstairs are two toddler boys whose superpowers include turning into tornadoes.
Efficiency: This is threefold. For one, it’s critical to have the right tools for the right job. You wouldn’t want a butter knife when you’re trying to cut down an oak tree. Secondly, get the best tools you can. I don’t mean get the best tools period, get what you can afford and what you can handle. Lastly, a good workspace is efficient in that it can accommodate what you use on a regular basis and that everything is easily accessible while not also being in the way.
Multiple Spaces: This one’s a luxury, but it’s also so great. If you checked out the photos of Sean, Cameron, and/or Jeff’s offices you may have noticed that there were multiple “stations”. They’re offices have more than one physical place to do work.
In my office there is my desk, but on the other half of the room is a couch and coffee table. And, even my desk converts between a sitting and standing desk. I have these different stations because not all creative work is created equal. I spend at least as much time writing as I do reading and researching. And that latter activity is better spent not in front of my computer.
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In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna lists Space (as in Workspace, not Outer Space), as one of the four obstacles that stand in the way of us doing our most important work — what she calls our “Must”.
You need a physical space — private, safe, and just for you. When you are in this space, you are not available. I repeat, you are not available. This is your sacred space to be by and with yourself. We all need safe containers. How might you create a safe space that you can spend time in daily? How might you get creative with where it begins and ends? Find this place and make it your own.
The unsung hero of showing up every day and doing your best creative work is your workspace. You may think it’s your determination, zeal, and creative genius. And it probably is. But it’s also that you’ve somehow managed to carve out a spot where you can think and work without judgment, inhibition, or distraction.
Perhaps you’ve created your workspace intentionally, or perhaps unintentionally. But either way, if you find that you’ve been doing some of your best work lately, take a moment to thank your space.
However, if you’re struggling — if you don’t have a space — it’s time to make one.
Your space doesn’t have to be made with a desk or a computer. I read about one woman who made her workspace by using painter’s tape to sectioning off part of her living room. She ran the tape across the ceiling, down the walls, and back over the floor.
I’ve had many productive days at coffee shops. Find a table where nobody will give you the stink eye if you’re there for too long, put on headphones if you like, and make your space with an Americano as your wingman.
I have a tendency to edit things to death.
This part could be better, I tell myself. This section could be clearer. That little detail could be improved upon. Over and over until there’s nothing left but a sterile, vanilla, whatever.
I’ve been like this for years. And still I don’t learn. That’s why I set deadlines for myself.
Today is the launch of the new design and landing page for The Focus Course.
For the past year I’ve been actively working on this book and course. And the past couple of months it has been literally all I’m working on. I’m in cave mode. Monk mode. Whatever it is when you’re focusing on just one thing only and don’t come out until it’s done.
I’ve been writing 1,500+ words every day, spending all 8 hours of my work time (and sometimes more) putting together all the research and ideas into the modules for the course.
Though I’ve publishing less frequently here on shawnblanc.net than the average since 2007, the work I’m doing for The Focus Course is, I believe, some of the best work I’ve ever done. I have been loving it.
And yet, despite how excited I am about this, just yesterday, on the eve of launching the new landing page, I was filled with self-doubt.
Am I communicating clearly? Am I over-communicating? Is this interesting? Is it boring? This might not work!
I was up until midnight tweaking the words, rearranging the testimonials, staring at the landing page wondering if each section was in the right order and what I should edit or change.
Because honestly, shipping is scary.
You guys, I don’t know if you knew this, but there are SO MANY books, blogs, articles, magazines, and newsletters out there related to “productivity”. I know, because I read them. But, and just to be honest, after a while everything starts to sound the same.
But I know that I know that The Focus Course can and will be life-changing. It is definitely different. But I also know that everyone says that about their stuff.
Which is why my biggest challenge with telling the story of The Focus Course has been to define what sets it apart. If I’m going to add my voice to the “productivity community”, then I have to do something different.
The course itself is different than anything out there that I know of. But how do I communicate that? How do I communicate that this is different — better — than the alternatives?
A big part of communicating why the course is different is just to say so.
What sets The Focus Course apart is its guided, action-centric nature.
Have you ever read a book, thought it was full of great ideas, tweeted about it, and then put it back on the shelf and went on about your life? Me too.
After reading over 50 of the most influential and popular books that have been written about productivity and creativity during the past century, I often found myself highlighting stuff and feeling motivated but not actually applying change to my life.
I knew that if I wanted to help people (and help myself) I needed to do more than just write another book. I needed a way to apply the wisdom from those books into my daily action and behavior.
So yeah, that’s the story behind the Focus Course.
But there’s another way I wanted to communicate that the course is different — better — than the alternatives.
And that’s through design.
I’m using design as a competitive advantage for The Focus Course. Instead of something expected and typical I wanted something powerful, professional, bold, and awesome. Something with personality.
I’ve been working with one of the most talented designers I know: my good friend, Pat Dryburgh. Pat’s the man responsible for the design of the Focus Course website and, wow. Just wow. (Thank you, Pat!)
This is the first real detailed and official announcement of what the Focus Course is all about. I’m extremely excited to get it out the door later this summer. It’s been a a lot of hard work and good times over the past year. Thanks to all of you who read this site and support the work I do. And thanks to Chris, Stephen, Bradley, Jeff, and Josh for your excellence in what you do on the other sites. Because of you all, I’m able to put the time into building something like this.
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Watch this space, or sign up for The Fight Spot newsletter. Over the next couple months I’ll be sharing more details about the behind the scenes of the what, why, and how of creating and building the course.
And, of course, if you’ve got a moment, go check out the new site. The design and typography are so great. And if you haven’t seen the video yet, I think you’ll enjoy it.
How do you keep focused doing the things that matter even when they’re a grind?
Reader Alan N. just recently asked me this question and it’s an excellent one.
Most of the time, the things that matter are a grind. Why is that? It seems unfair that the most important work is often mundane and difficult. Not to mention that usually the most important work is not even due today.
But that’s the truth of it. We have to define the things that matter and then seek them out and act on them. If we want to do the things that matter, we have to show up every day and do them.
The topic of meaningful productivity is central to The Focus Course. And since I’m almost done building the course, I could talk about this stuff for hours and hours — it’s all right at the top of my mind right now.
In short, at the end of the day, meaningful productivity is about consistently doing the things that matter. Contrary to popular belief, real productivity has very little to do with how many emails we can reply to and then archive in less than 60 seconds.
That said, the way we keep focused on the things that matter even when they’re a grind, is two-fold: (1) Make doing the most important work part of your routine; and (2) celebrate your daily progress.
On the other side of that coin is overcoming two of the greatest areas of resistance to doing meaningful work every day: Inbox Addiction and Urgency Addiction.
Make Doing the Most Important Work Part of Your Routine
I write for a living. And I’ve found that having a common time, common place, and even the same theme music for my writing has made a profound impact on my ability to show up every day and write.
When you look at it from the outside, it sounds silly or boring. But in practice it’s a bit cathartic, and it’s the time of my day I most look forward to. When I know when and where I’ll be writing, and what I’ll be writing about, I can’t wait to get to work.
It wasn’t until just three months ago that I actually set a routine in place for when and where I would write:
Every morning I write for at least 30 minutes no matter what. That’s my commitment: 30 minutes. This writing time is the first thing I do each morning when I start my work day. And though I’m committed to write for at least just 30 minutes, I usually end up writing for about 2.5 hours. Once I’ve pressed through that initial half-hour, I find a flow and just keep going.
I play the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. It’s the Monument Valley soundtrack. On repeat. I put on my headphones and hit play on that album. I probably listen to it 3 or 4 times every day. The advantage is that it just becomes like white noise — because it’s familiar it’s not distracting. And because I’m always listening to this music when I’m writing, the music itself now has a Pavlovian effect that helps me focus in on “writing mode”.
Additionally, I do not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9:00 am. Since I start my work day at 7:30am, I have a minimum of 90 minutes where my only goal is to write, think, or plan.
Thus, not only do I have a commitment to do the work, but also a commitment to not give in to any potential distractions while I’m doing the work. As I’m sure you know, it’s one thing to show up and another thing altogether to actually create something in the time you’ve given yourself.
Since I began this morning writing routine three months ago, I’ve written somewhere in the ballpark of 90,000 words. This includes my Fight Spot newsletters, podcast scripts and talking points, 31 days (so far) of my 40-day Focus Course, and the first draft of a top-secret new ebook we will be publishing through The Sweet Setup in a few months.
Having this routine in place does more than just create the space for me to do my most important work. It also reserves my willpower and creative energy for that which matters most: doing the actual work.
When I start writing in the morning, I already know what I’m going to write about (because I choose each day’s writing assignment the day before). I also already know how long I’m going to write for (at least 30 minutes), and that I’m not going to do anything else.
There is literally nothing for me to think about other than moving the that big blue blinking cursor from left to right.
It’s most difficult at the beginning
The hardest part of turning our most important work into part of our routine is at the beginning. As we implement a new daily habit, the most energy required is at the outset.
They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. But that’s the minimum. For most people it is more like 66 days — about two months. But, once you’ve done something for two months then the discipline required to keep doing it is greatly reduced.
So, for example, writing 1,000 words every day can be extremely challenging for the first week. Then a bit less challenging the week after. Until, after about 8 weeks, you’re practically on autopilot. If you can muster the discipline and diligence to stick with it for a couple of months, then pretty soon the routine of it takes over.
Choose to do something every day until eventually it chooses you back.
Celebrate Your Progress
At the end of every day, I open up my Day One journal and write down the highlights of what I accomplished that day. It usually includes the topic I wrote about and how many words I put down, any meaningful connections or conversations I had, and any other miscellaneous thoughts.
By recognizing and rewarding these small wins each day, it builds up an intrinsic motivation that makes me want to keep doing the important work.
Celebrating progress strengthens our emotional and motivated state. Which means we are happier and more motivated at work and are therefore more likely to be productive and creative. It keeps the cycle going.
We may know what our most important work is. And we may know that we should be spending time on it every day. But oftentimes that head knowledge is not heart knowledge. We don’t feel the value in what we’re doing.
When we feel like cogs in a machine (even cogs who know they’re doing something they think is important) then we slowly lose our desire to be productive and efficient. We don’t care about coming up with creative solutions or fresh ideas. We just do what’s required of us in order to get our paycheck so we can go home to our television and unwind.
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually complete the big projects and big goals.
Note: I was recently interviewed for an episode of the Fizzle show where Chase Reeves discussed how to use a productivity journal. It’s an excellent podcast episode — tightly edited and constructed, like an episode 99pi or something you’d hear on NPR.
Inbox Addiction (“The Just Checks”)
Here’s how I define Inbox Addiction:
Inbox Addiction is an urge to continuously check one’s news feeds, social feeds, and message inboxes despite undesirable and even negative consequences or a desire to stop.
Inbox addiction poses a serious threat to doing our best creative work and staying on focus with our essential tasks. The addiction of checking and refreshing our inboxes, timelines, and stats robs us of our ability to focus as well as our ability to do substantial, meaningful work. It’s a drain on our time as well as a drain on our creative energy.
Last fall I wrote about some alternatives to The Just Checks. In short, when I’m in line at the store or have a moment of down time, instead of habitually checking Twitter or email or Instagram, I try to instead scroll through my Day One timeline (the Day One Today extension for iOS 8 that shows two random photos is great for this, btw) or send an encouraging text message to a friend.
Urgency Addiction in a Nutshell
In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey defines Urgency Addiction as this:
Urgency addiction is a self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs. And instead of meeting these needs, the tools and approaches of time management often feed the addiction. They keep us focused on daily prioritization of the urgent. […]
It’s important to realize that urgency itself is not the problem. The problem is that when urgency is the dominant factor in our lives, importance isn’t.
The reason urgency addiction robs us of doing our most important work is because essential work is often mundane.
One reason we love to give our energy and attention to doing what is urgent is because it feels exciting. There is a natural momentum and adrenaline that accompanies things which are urgent.
Contrast that against doing what is essential.
Back to the writing example: suppose you are writing a book. The essential work is that you must put words down. And yet, that is so often the very task we neglect and avoid. Because it’s difficult, boring, tedious, mundane. We instead let our days get filled with many other more pressing (“urgent”) matters, and never get to the foundational and important work of writing.
When something is essential, it is absolutely necessary. Essential is the very definition of what’s truly important
Urgent is relative, but essential is absolute. While urgency is usually defined by external factors, essentialness is fundamentally important to a project or goal, regardless of external factors.
Urgency in and of itself is not a problem. The problem is when we find ourselves craving projects, work environments, and scenarios where there is a fire to put out. And thus we never have the time to do the important task which doesn’t have to be done today.
Urgency addiction is when we allow our time to be taken over by whatever is most urgent in the moment. When that happens, we give no consideration to what’s down the road and no priority to the long-term goals. Moreover, it leaves no space for us to walk out our daily habits and lifestyle practices — they get set aside, sacrificed for the sake of yet another urgent crisis or pressing matter.
How often do you feel frustrated at the end of the day because your most important tasks are still not done? How often do you blame the rush and press of external things for your failure to do the work you know to be most important? How often do you find yourself giving up quality time with important people so that you can finish a project or respond to a crisis?
To let our lives be taken over by what is only urgent is to live like a child — caring only about what seems important right now with no regard for the future and without even knowing what is actually important today.
So long as our attention is focused on the urgent and the incoming, we won’t be able to do our best work. We won’t make any meaningful progress toward our goals because we will be dealing only with the tasks and situations which are urgent while we neglect the ones which are essential.
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The newness of a project brings an energy that motivates us to get started. And the urgency of a deadline brings an energy that motivates us to finish. But what about in-between? How do we keep on doing the work in-between starting something new and finishing it? Because the vast majority of our life is lived in that “in-between state”.
Joy in the Journey
The best musicians in the world practice every single day. For hours a day. And they don’t just practice their favorite songs and coolest licks — they practice the techniques and scales and fills that they’re bad at.
I studied martial arts for over a decade, and we did the same stretches and basic moves at the start of every class every time. Even after I received my black belt, we were still practicing basic front stance and middle punch.
You write a book by writing it. Thinking about it, outlining it, researching for it, yeah you’ve got to do these. But you’ve also got to sit down and write it. Even if you can write 1,000 words every day, you’re looking at a couple of months to write the first draft.
Something the best musicians, the martial artists, and writers all have in common is more than just commitment and fortitude. More than just routine. They have a joy in the journey.
And while the musician, martial artist, and writer all have goals they’re working toward, the goal is not the primary motivation. When we delight in the journey, then the daily grind becomes what we get to do. Not something we have to do.
In his book, Mastery, George Leonard writes that “love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and drink.”
When we’re doing work that matters there is no finally moment. The tension and the difficulty never go away. The distractions and excuses will always be around. Hard work will always be hard work. The goal is not to eliminate the tension but to thrive in the midst of it.
P.S. I’ve built a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. If you’d liked this article, I bet you’ll love the course.